June 3, 2015
For the first time in 40 matches and only the second time in ten years, Rafael Nadal lost a tennis match at Roland Garros.
The superb Spaniard had won here for the last five years and yet he finally met his match in Novak Djokovic, the world number won who hasn’t lost now in 27 clashes anywhere.
Djokovic has never won the French Open and you sensed the enormity of the occasion for him, a quarter-final that many had described as the real final.
At 4-0 up in the first set, Novak had made it look all too easy. He seemed to allow himself to think he had no right to such dominance, and it almost proved costly.
Rafa found his range, and fought back like the warrior he is. In an instant he had broken back twice and levelled at 4-4. Even when he faced set point three times in an exquisite, 12-minute tenth game, Rafa somehow found a way and pulled off a smash that clipped the net and sailed successfully beyond his opponent.
Djokovic looked to the heavens with a sardonic smile and must have wondered whether the greatest clay-court player of them all was about to deny him once more.
Despite being put off by a ridiculous time warning from the umpire, Rafa stayed cool enough to level again, and you wondered whether his spirit could ever be tamed.
But Novak steeled himself once more, launched a fresh assault and finally won that scintillating first set 7-5.
Cracks had already appeared in Nadal’s game, as he failed to find the necessary depth to counter Novak’s amazing all-round aggression. When Rafa fired a simple volley hopelessly wide, he was broken again, trailing 3-5 and staring down the barrel.
Djokovic showed fresh psychological vulnerability, squandering three set points. Almost in desperation, he rushed the net behind his serve and came up with an extraordinary cross-court, back-hand half-volley which almost defied physics.
It was a key moment and Djokovic was able to close out the second set 6-3 after all. Nadal knew it was all over, the crowd knew it was all over, but there was a final, almost painful set to play.
Once again, Djokovic romped away to a 4-0 lead, and this time there was no comeback in sight. Some strong serving gave Nadal the ability to avoid the specter of a bagel, a humiliation no one wanted to see. But he double-faulted on match point and Djokovic had closed out 6-1.
Will Nadal ever be quite the same? It’s doubtful, though we should never write off such a wonderful player, and we should cherish every opportunity to witness his powerful brilliance while it lasts. Let’s hope he shines once more.
As for Djokovic, this must surely be the year he clinches his Career Slam, and a Calendar Slam cannot be out of the question.
We should salute the greatest player in the world. Though somehow, his deserved straight sets triumph was also tinged with a touch of sadness. The kind you can’t avoid when a true sporting king loses his crown.