(CNN) — Friday's French Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, billed by some as the real final, lived up to the hype.
Nadal, ultimately, was the happier man after an epic match that lasted more than four and a half hours on a sweltering day in Paris.
The defending champion moved within a match of making it a record extending eight French Open titles by defeating the world No. 1 6-4 3-6 6-1 6-7 9-7.
"I was ready for the fight," Nadal told reporters.
Nadal will now be the heavy favorite to beat fourth-seed David Ferrer in Sunday's all-Spanish final.
Ferrer, who cruised past Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-1 7-6 (3) 6-2 in the other semifinal to dash local hopes, will be appearing in his maiden grand slam final and has lost 16 consecutive matches on clay against Nadal.
Nadal, in his 35th meeting against Djokovic, improved to 5-0 against the Serb at the French Open. But for a while it appeared as if Djokovic would inflict more woe on Nadal in a gripping rematch of last year's final.
Djokovic had topped Nadal in three straight grand slam finals beginning in 2011, downing him in six hours in the 2012 Australian Open finale.
Djokovic led 4-2 in the fifth set after Nadal blew a break lead in the second and couldn't serve out the match in the fourth. It was just the second time Nadal has been taken to five sets at Roland Garros.
"When I was serving for the match it was against the wind so I knew that it would be a tough game," Nadal said. "It was a similar match to the one in Australia in 2012 and he won. This time it is me that won and that is what makes sport so big."
The thriller wasn't without controversy.
With Djokovic leading 4-3 in the fifth and at deuce, he put away a simple smash.
Chair umpire Pascal Maria, however, ruled that he touched the net before the ball bounced twice giving Nadal the point.
Djokovic won the next point to revert to deuce instead of holding for 5-3 and Nadal eventually broke for 4-4.
"Who knows what direction the match may have taken if I had won that point," Djokovic told reporters. "On 99.9 per cent of other occasions, I would have got the point."
Maria earlier gave both players a warning for taking too much time between points.
Djokovic was also upset that his request to water the court in the fifth set was denied. He felt the court was too dry.
"I was not asking to water the court because I want to make my opponent trip or do something like that," Djokovic said. "I was doing it for myself, because I felt that it got very dry and it was very slippery."
Nadal made the better start, gradually taking control of the first set in the hot conditions thought to suit him his heavy ground strokes move through the court quicker and his balls bounce higher.
With Djokovic spraying shots and Nadal hitting deep, the Spaniard broke for 4-3. He saw off Djokovic in the opener and seemed headed for a win when he broke again for 3-2 in the second.
Not for the first time in the encounter, Nadal would drop his serve in the ensuing game. A rattled Nadal lost four games in succession and the match was level.
Nadal stormed to the third set and again held the lead in the fourth. He broke for 4-3, only to drop serve for 4-4. Unusually for Nadal, he couldn't close out the match when trying to serve it out at 6-5.
As Nadal hit shorter, Djokovic was allowed to step in and crush his ground strokes.
A reeling Nadal was broken to start the fifth but rallied, aided by Djokovic erring on several overheads.
"It's a very special win for me and congratulations to Novak," Nadal said. "He's a great champion and he is going to win here at Roland Garros one day."
Ferrer capitalized on apparent nerves from Tsonga in the first set and overturned a 3-0 deficit in the second. Once Ferrer took the second set, Tsonga sagged.
Tsonga was bidding to become the first Frenchman in 30 years to win a major.