By Julien Pretot
PARIS (Reuters) - There might have been only 5,000 fans present on Court Philippe Chatrier due to COVID-19 restrictions but rarely has there been such an electrifying and raucous atmosphere at Roland Garros as Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal in what will go down as one of the most memorable matches contested at the French Open.
With an 11pm curfew looming on Friday, a vocal crowd chanted 'we will not leave' as it seemed they would be ejected from the grounds when the riveting Nadal-Djokovic semi-final spilled into a fourth set.
When the stadium's PA, Marc Maury, started to make an announcement, the majority of the crowd booed loudly to drown out his voice as they presumed that they were being ordered to vacate the court, while some spectators started to make their way towards the exit.
However, Maury had to repeat the announcement twice -- "in agreement with authorities, the match will be completed in your presence" -- and once he had made himself heard, the jeers turned into screams of delight.
Around 5,000 spectators - an increase from the 1,000 that had been admitted during the first 10 days of the tournament -- have been allowed into Roland Garros's main 15,000-capacity showcourt since Wednesday as France slowly returns to normal life amid the pandemic.
The men's semi-finals started at 2:50pm local time with Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas facing German Alexander Zverev before the highly anticipated Nadal v Djokovic showdown.
With Tsitsipas taking five sets and almost four hours to subdue Zverev, there were fears that the 58th duel between 13-time champion Nadal and world number one Djokovic could end up being completed in front of empty stands as spectators would have to adhere to the 11pm curfew.
But when the two warriors emerged at around 7pm local time, the threat of missing out on the ending seemed a long way away for the fans.
"Let's go, Rafa, let's go", chanted Nadal fans wrapped in the Spanish flag as the 20-time Grand Slam champion raced to a 5-0 lead in the opening set.
"Nole, Nole, Nole," responded Djokovic's equally vocal supporters when the 18-time major winner started an unlikely comeback on his way to a 3-6 6-3 7-6(4) 6-2 victory.
Both players fed off the crowd's energy, with Nadal turning to the stands and pumping his fist as he saved a break point at 5-5 in the third set, triggering a huge roar.
Djokovic cupped his ear to the crowd when he won the third set tiebreak, triggering another deafening roar.
Thankfully to the relief of the players and the fans, the roars were allowed to rock the arena until the final point.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Pritha Sarkar)