June 7, 2013
We’ve all done it, haven’t we? Rushed towards the net, played our shot, but then become the victims of our own momentum?
As we all (except Novak Djokovic) know, if you touch that net before the ball is dead, you’ve had it. It’s a perilous business, tennis.
For most of us, the price for our carelessness is the loss of a point – and maybe a teasing rebuke from our opponent.
For Novak Djokovic, the price was the French Open and the chance to claim all the Grand Slam titles in a calendar year.
No wonder he didn’t want to accept the rules.
The pivotal eighth game of the final set should have seen Novak go 5-3 ahead. He could have confounded most of the experts, for he would surely have gone on to the final from there. The Serb had an easy swipe for advantage in his service game. He only had to let the ball bounce and supply the coup de grace.
But like so many epics, this French Open semi-final was settled by a moment of inexplicable human error.
Djokovic took the ball on the full and couldn’t stop himself from going into that net. By the time he transgressed, that ball was already beyond Rafa’s reach – but crucially it hadn’t bounced a second time or hit anything. ‘The ball was already out!’ Novak argued. (And he continued to question the justice behind the decision after the match.) But Rafa knew in that moment he was off the hook. Within seconds, he had broken back to provide us with more drama and that marathon fifth set.
Wow! Wonderful Rafa finally downed Novak 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7, 9-7. We knew this match would make us gasp – and we all felt exhausted by the end, just from watching these two heroes hit fresh heights.
They just keep serving up the magic, don’t they? They make shots no ordinary human being would make, only to see the ball fly back over the net from an even more impossible position. Future generations may look back at footage of such incredible clashes in awe, scarcely daring to believe that players could produce this kind of sorcery.
When was tennis ever this good, month after month? And there’ll hardly be time to draw a collective breath before Wimbledon – the most special tournament of all – is upon us. The tickets will be like gold-dust – and rightly so.
The true beauty of this, the golden era is that the clash of the titans is always totally unpredictable. Both Rafa and Novak could have seized victory and claimed to have deserved it.
Novak seemed to gift Rafa the third set in a strange but mercifully temporary collapse. To think that he still came close to victory – against the greatest clay court player of all time! Rafa’s comeback from that serious knee injury is nearing its climax. Surely nothing can stop him from taking his eighth French title now…can it?
Fellow Spaniard David Ferrer, one of the most popular guys on the tour, has broken through to a Grand Slam final at last – and he will try to pull off one of the biggest shocks of all time on Sunday. ‘I don’t feel tired,’ Ferrer warned on Friday night. Battle-weary Rafa is unlikely to be able to say the same.
Ferrer brushed aside Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-1, 7-6, 6-2 in a disappointing semi-final, which cruelly exposed Tsonga’s mental weakness in front of his own crowd. It also served to underline the extraordinary quality of what we had seen before.
Let’s hope Ferrer can make it a great final. In truth, however, I suspect we have already seen that great final – in the form of the Nadal v Djokovic semi.
When will we get to see the two giants of our sport do battle again? Wimbledon, we all hope – and it is only a fortnight away.
If Nadal’s victory looks certain, so does Serena’s triumph in the women’s final against Maria Sharapova. Russian-born Maria hasn’t beaten Williams since 2004. Powerful Serena has defeated the defending champion twelve times in succession.
But after yesterday, who can be sure of anything? Who could have predicted that the world number one would effectively cost himself the title by falling into the net and still try to claim the point? At least we were reminded he is a mere mortal after all. And if he didn’t know the rules before, he does now!
Mark Ryan is a member of the Mail on Sunday’s Wimbledon reporting team.