Curfew pauses Djokovic victory to usher out fans

PARIS — Novak Djokovic wheeled toward his guest box in a nearly empty Court Philippe Chatrier as midnight neared and let out one yell, two yells, three, four.

Once two points from a straight-sets victory and seemingly well on his way to a French Open semifinal showdown against Rafael Nadal, Djokovic had to deal with so much that went awry: consecutive unforced errors that gave away a tiebreaker; a 21 1/2-minute delay while spectators left because of a COVID-19 curfew; a face-down tumble that drew blood from his left palm.

Still, the top-seeded Djokovic held on and moved on, pulling out the quarterfinal victory against No. 9 Matteo Berrettini 6-3, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 on Wednesday night.

“This match had it all: falls, crowd, break. It was a lot of intensity. I just felt under tension the entire time,” Djokovic said. “The reaction [at] the end was just me liberating that tension that was building up for the entire match.”

The fans became almost as big a story as the match. They were expected to leave at 10:45 p.m. because of the curfew, but many refused, which meant play had to be interrupted. Many even started chanting, “We’ve paid, we’ll stay.” Some even jeered those who left.

At 10:55 p.m. both players packed their bags and walked off down the tunnel, while one fan shouted out, “Rip-off!” Within a few minutes, the main stadium was almost completely empty.

Regardless, now comes a semifinal Friday for Djokovic against a familiar foe in a rematch of last year’s Roland Garros final, but a round earlier: Nadal, who is 105-2 in the clay-court tournament.

“We know each other well,” the third-seeded Nadal said. “Everybody knows that in these kind of matches, anything can happen.”

Djokovic was so close to advancing when he led the third-set tiebreaker against 2019 U.S. Open semifinalist Berrettini 5-4. But after accumulating merely 14 unforced errors over about 2 1/2 hours up to then, Djokovic committed two in a row — a nervy forehand into the net, then a backhand into the net — and lost that set, drawing roars from a crowd hoping for more tennis.

The number of people allowed in the 15,000-seat main stadium was limited to 1,000 for each of the first 10 days of the tournament because of pandemic-related restrictions, but that limit was raised to 5,000 on Wednesday. The start of play for Djokovic-Berrettini was bumped up an hour to 8 p.m., and the 9 p.m. curfew that had been in place was moved to 11 p.m.

They did the wave, added some atmosphere and kept chair umpire James Keothavong a bit busy — especially when it was time to empty the stadium.

When the curfew arrived, there were lots of slow movers, so Djokovic and Berrettini — who seemed particularly buoyed by the prodding he received from fans — gathered their belongings and left the court until the match could resume.

Berrettini said that when action returned, his legs felt like they were “made of marble.”

It’s a shame. It’s something that I don’t like,” he said about the delay, adding that he understood the need for special rules during the pandemic.

Berrettini didn’t play a point in the fourth round because the player he was supposed to face, Federer, withdrew with an eye to being ready for Wimbledon. In Djokovic’s previous match, he dropped the first two sets against another Italian, 19-year-old Lorenzo Musetti.

Sure, Berrettini produced a trio of break points in the opening set Wednesday, but he converted none and never earned another such chance. But Djokovic needed to do a little extra work to finish the job.