Novak Djokovic ruined Roger Federer’s ambitions of a 100th career title as he outlasted his great adversary 7-6(6), 5-7, 7-6(3) in an epic Paris Masters semi-final that stretched his remarkable unbeaten run to 22 matches on Saturday.
In a 47th meeting between the two greats, the stubborn Djokovic simply refused to be beaten as he eked out a fourth successive victory over Federer in a tiebreak decider after three compelling hours.
It gave the Serbian the opportunity to mark his return to world number one on Monday by winning a record-extending fifth Paris title in Sunday’s final against Russian Karen Khachanov, who earlier crushed Dominic Thiem 6-4, 6-1.
Djokovic, who had complained of competing with flu-like symptoms in his previous matches this week, was proud and relieved to repel a wonderful challenge from Federer, who appeared close to his imperious best.
“We’ve had epic matches throughout our rivalry but this one definitely ranks as one of the best matches we played. High quality tennis,” Djokovic told reporters.
“Next to the match I played against (Rafael) Nadal in the Wimbledon semis, this was definitely the most exciting match I’ve played this year, and probably the best quality match that I was part of.”
Even though he was not broken once, it was still not enough for the 37-year-old Swiss, whose nerve failed him in an anti-climactic final tiebreak in which he served a double fault and made two more careless groundstroke errors.
“For the most part I can be happy, my level was good, but losing is never fun,” said Federer. “It’s intense, it’s good tennis, we care about winning, we don’t like losing. I can tell you that right now.”
“Novak is obviously on a roll. You can feel it.”
Federer was seeking to become only the second man after Jimmy Connors to win a century of professional tour titles following his 99th win in Basel, only to fall agonisingly short.
The 20-time Grand Slam champion lost the first set despite having held set point in the tiebreak and had Djokovic in trouble in the final set when the Serb received a code violation at 4-4 for chucking his racket away in disgust after the Swiss had saved two break points.
Ultimately, though, Federer, who saved all 12 break points on his serve, saw his resilience ended as Djokovic extended his career lead over the Swiss to 25-22 after their longest-ever three-set duel.
It was the first time in their 12 years of battling that Djokovic had won four matches in succession against Federer, equalling the run that the Swiss himself had once achieved at the dawn of their rivalry.
Earlier, Karen Khachanov showed why he is one of the finest young talents in tennis as he powered into the final of the Paris Masters with a thunderous 6-4, 6-1 victory over Dominic Thiem.
The 22-year-old, 6ft 6in Russian, already the owner of two indoor hard court titles this year, moved one step away from the biggest title of his career at the Bercy indoor arena, crushing his Austrian friend in 70 one-sided minutes.
Khachanov will now play his first Masters 1000 final on Sunday against Djokovic.
"It was one of my best matches, and what I'm happy about is that I was increasing my level, which shows that I'm becoming a better player," Khachanov said.
The 18th ranked Muscovite overpowered a third top-10 player in successive days, having hammered Alexander Zverev in the quarters and negotiated John Isner's huge serves in the last-16.
Thiem, the world number eight who on Friday had booked his place in the ATP Finals, was out of sorts and seemed discomfited from the start by the depth and power of the groundstrokes he has seen so often from his regular practice partner.
Remarkably, the Austrian saw his powerful serve broken five times in a row by Khachanov at the end of the first set and throughout a surprisingly one-sided second.
"It was really intense the first couple of games and at 4-4, when there was more pressure coming, I broke him and took the lead," said Khachanov.
It was a hugely disappointing day for 25-year-old Thiem, who had reached the French Open final in Paris in June but who is still searching for the first Masters title his talent merits.