June 8, 2014
Rafael Nadal, the king of clay, has won the French Open for a record ninth time.
Irrepressible, indomitable, stubborn, unique…Rafael Nadal is all of these and so much more, including the greatest clay-court tennis player the world has ever seen. He just won the French Open for a record ninth time, claiming his fifth Roland Garros title in a row. Not bad for a man with a dodgy back.
Yet Rafa had to do it the hard way to clinch his 14th Grand Slam title, grinding down Novak Djokovic to triumph 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4.
Who knows, the Serb might even have become just the eighth man in history to complete his Career Slam, had he not felt so drained in the airless heat of the Court Philippe Chatrier. Crucially, Novak’s energy seemed to evaporate as a defiant Nadal fought his way into contention. Hollow-cheeked and sunken-eyed, Djokovic gradually seemed to realise he couldn’t achieve his dream. Yet he fought on, unwilling to let go. He even found a new, brief lease of life by breaking back in the fourth as the temperatures cooled. Then, missing his chance and lacking clarity of thought, he finally submitted to the inevitable.
Nadal, who burst into tears when he heard the Spanish national anthem, said afterwards: ‘Novak, I’m sorry for today but congratulations and I have no doubt you will win here in the future.’
Djokovic was almost in tears himself after the incredible reception he received. He said: ‘Congratulations to Rafa, it is incredible to win thjs tournament nine times. I gave all my energy and effort but Rafa was the best player. I didn’t get the trophy this year but I’m coming back again and again until I win it.’
There was no early sign of Friday’s sporting perfection from Rafa because, unlike the compliant Andy Murray, Djokovic simply didn’t allow him to be perfect. In the first set Novak moved better, he was tactically astute, he looked calm and resolute in arguably the biggest match of his illustrious career.
Perhaps the influence of Boris Becker in Novak’s camp was starting to bear fruit, we thought, after initial doubts about that partnership among many observers on the circuit.
Rafa had looked unbeatable prior to this. But the Spaniard found he couldn’t bully Novak like he did Murray. Not for the first hour, at least. There was too much mutual respect, with the head-to-head only 22-19 in Nadal’s favour. There was no inferiority complex in the Serb, who had won their last four meetings including a clay-court triumph in Rome recently.
The first break points of the final came to Djokovic when he led 4-3 in the first. Nadal saved the first with an incredible forehand down the line and the second with a massive body-serve. Back came Novak with his own monster forehand to earn a third chance. This time Nadal miscalculated with a cross-court forehand and Djokovic could serve for the first set against the odds.
Rafa hit back with a blend of subtlety and power to create break points of his own but squandered both. Novak didn’t give him another chance and took the first set in style. Nadal thought he had broken at 3-2 in the second, but the baseline judge was overruled. Novak clawed his way back, only to be broken anyway by a series of bruising Rafa forehands. Djokovic simply stayed cool to achieve an immediate break-back, caused more by Nadal’s errors than Novak’s brilliance.
Rafa was always going to come good some time and put enough pressure on a tiring Novak to make him crack as he served to save the second set.
Typically, Nadal yelled to the heavens and pumped his fists as he levelled the match.
Considering he had enjoyed the best of the match overall, Djokovic looked weary and forlorn at the start of the third.
There had been rumours that a virus had affected his condition, and it was time to find out what he had left. But Novak’s decision-making fell apart under the strain and Rafa raced to a 3-0 lead.
Dkokovic had break points for 2-3 and 3-4, but couldn’t find a way to halt the slide, no matter how inventive he tried to be.
Rafa simply applauded his adversary when Novak won some classic points…then went about undoing him some more, eventually taking that third set with ease.
Djokovic tried to summon what it would take to mount a fourth-set fightback – but the resources weren’t there. He hit shots where they shouldn’t go and finally served a double fault, distracted by the unruly crowd.
In truth, however, Rafa had reduced him to this. Nadal and his hurtful forehand, the lethal weapon of choice for the ultimate warrior of tennis.
Want to see these gladiators go at it yet again as they try to win Wimbledon?