June 15, 2013        

A Classic at Roland Garros

Paul Fein

“If we talk about everything that makes a match big, today we had all of these ingredients,” even modest Rafael Nadal had to enthuse. “An unbelievable match to be part of,” Novak Djokovic agreed. For 4 hours and 37 minutes, these longtime but still prime time archrivals slugged it out, like two ferocious boxing champions, until Nadal landed the final decisive punches to knock out Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 9-7.  

This enthralling classic, ballyhooed in advance as the match of the year, featured the ingredients that will keep it memorable for years to come. It involved the sport’s two greatest champions at the zenith of their careers, during a famous rivalry. The result had a big, perhaps lasting, impact on the careers of both players. The showdown was staged at a premier event—the French Open—where reputations hang in the balance and legends are built. The caliber of play was high and sometimes brilliant, even sublime. The sporting public could identify with and passionately favor a player because of their contrasting personalities and playing styles. The combatants were evenly matched and provided a taut, unpredictable denouement.

The stakes could not have been higher for both protagonists. Djokovic was trying to win his first title at Roland Garros, which would give him a coveted “career” Grand Slam—winning all four majors. If Djokovic, the reigning Australian champion, could dethrone Nadal, the King of Clay, he would stand halfway to a rare “calendar” Grand Slam this year.

Two weeks before the French Open, Jelena Genčić, his first coach and his “second mother,” exhorted him, “This is a tournament you need to win.” When Djokovic learned of Genčić’s death after his third-round match, he confided, “She’s one of the most incredible people I ever knew. So it’s quite emotional, yeah…. So now I feel in her honor that I need to go all the way.”

While the grieving Djokovic was coping with mortality—“Life gives you things, takes away close people in your life”—Nadal was bidding for immortality. If he could defeat No.1-ranked Djokovic and lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires trophy two days later, he would capture not just a record eighth French crown, but create a men’s record that may never be broken: the most singles titles at any of the four major tournaments.

But that extraordinary feat would have to come in the most difficult year of his career. Questions abounded when he resumed competition in February after a partially torn tendon and inflammation in his left knee sidelined him for seven months. Would the muscular Spaniard still have the speed to make amazing shots on the dead run? Would the chronic pain return? Would he regain the requisite form and match-toughness to win prestigious events? Nadal answered the questions resoundingly by reaching eight straight finals and winning six of them.

Regrettably, this eagerly anticipated duel was relegated to a semifinal because Roland Garros foolishly followed the rankings and seeded Nadal only No. 3, despite his incomparable record there (52-1) and on clay everywhere (258-11 since 2005). It was widely believed the winner would take the tournament, and two days later Nadal thrashed compatriot David Ferrer 6-3, 6-2, 6-3.

Djokovic’s Inspiration

Nadal flashed his A Game to take the brutally physical opening set 6-4 in what already seemed like a repeat of their sensational, grueling 2012 Australian Open final. After Nadal broke Djokovic’s serve with a backhand winner to go ahead 3-2 in the second set, the disgusted Djokovic flung his racket at his bag. Perhaps it relieved some tension. Or perhaps during that changeover Djokovic recalled how Genčić’s mentoring and Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” left a particularly deep impact on him when he was a boy in war-ravaged Serbia. “You start slowly and then stronger, stronger, stronger,” Genčić told The New York Times in 2010. “I could see he thought it was wonderful. And I explained to him, ‘When you play a match, Novak, and this is very important, when you play a match and suddenly you feel not very good, remember this music, remember how much adrenaline you have in your stomach and your body. Let this music push you to play stronger and stronger.’ He understood. He was 11 years old, but he understood.”

In any event, the suddenly inspired and more aggressive underdog fought back with powerful serve returns and groundstrokes in a pivotal 10-point game to break serve for 3-all. Nadal’s momentum was stopped. It was completely reversed two games later. With both players grunting louder and louder and Djokovic dictating most of the rallies, he blasted a forehand winner to break again and lead 5-3. A game later, the set was his, 6-3. “It does not get better than what you’re seeing here for the first couple sets,” raved NBC tennis analyst and former star John McEnroe.

 The third set started with a phenomenal barrage of 25 percussive shots and breathtaking retrieving that Nadal climaxed with a pinpoint backhand passing shot. A bad line call against Djokovic—Hawk-Eye confirmed his shot barely hit the line, though it’s not implemented in Paris—helped Nadal break serve for 2-0. Looking deflated, Djokovic made bad decisions, such as when he weirdly tried to serve and volley on a second serve and double-faulted, to get broken again for 4-0 en route to losing the set, 6-1.

In a repeat of the second set, Nadal broke serve for 4-3 and Djokovic was in big trouble. Once again, he rebounded. Terrific serve returns, the best in tennis history, ignited a service break for 4-all. Relentless Rafa broke again for 6-5, and at 30-30 he was only two points away from victory. But just as he had in their 2012 Australian marathon and in two U.S. Opens facing match points against Roger Federer, Djokovic escaped from the brink of defeat. With Nadal serving against the wind, he broke back to force a tiebreaker. Pounding forehands down the line and inside-out, he prevailed 7-3 and now had all the momentum.

This fluctuating contest was far from over, though. When asked by his broadcasting partner Ted Robinson who would win the deciding set, normally opinionated McEnroe admitted, “I have no idea.” Viewers worldwide likely didn’t either.

Nadal's Passion

If Djokovic was the ultimate escape artist, Nadal was the ultimate warrior. Toni Nadal, his uncle and only coach, had inculcated in him at an early age the importance of enduring and overcoming adversity. Afterwards, Nadal recalled this pivotal stage in the match: “I’m more than happy about the way I fought in the fifth [set], after losing a big chance in the fourth. Djokovic always comes back. [To win a match like this] you need to love the game. You need to love what you are doing and appreciate every moment. I have learned to enjoy suffering in these matches, because what is much harder is to be [injured] at home in Mallorca, watching these matches on TV.”

Striking the ball more cleanly than ever and rushing net smartly, Djokovic drew first blood in the fifth set with a service break to lead 1-0. Fate wasn’t on the Serb’s side, though. Uncle Toni had gotten away with illegal coaching in Spanish during the match and Nadal was never penalized. When Djokovic pleaded with chair umpire Pascal Maria to brush the slippery court, he was denied. The unkindest cut of all, though, was the Serb’s own fault.

Djokovic was serving at 4-3, 30-all when he raced forward to put away a short lob. The tricky winds pulled the ball very close to the net. What looked like a routine smash turned into an adventure as Djokovic tried to tap the ball for an angle winner. The usually agile and graceful athlete crashed into the net and sprawled awkwardly over it. Since he touched the net before his putaway bounced twice, the point was properly awarded to Nadal under the rules. “Who knows which direction the match would have gone if I won that point,” Djokovic said afterwards. “And I should have won it, in 99.9 per cent of cases.” In retrospect, Djokovic should have let the ball bounce to avoid touching the net and then smashed it away safely. But tennis is a sport requiring hundreds of split-second decisions, and a few inevitably turn out badly even for champions. Nadal would later recall missing an easy passing shot when leading 4-2 in the fifth set that likely cost him the Australian title 17 months ago.

Ever the opportunist, Nadal pounced. Hitting harder and sprinting explosively, Nadal won three straight points and broke back for 4-4. The scintillating shotmaking turned unbelievable with Djokovic serving at 6-7, 40-15. When he stroked a seemingly unreachable lob near the baseline, the tireless Nadal streaked back, and with his back to the net, hit a between-the-legs trick shot lob. The surprised Djokovic missed the routine smash. On the next point he recovered his poise and whacked a backhand winner to hold serve for 7-all.   

Then Nadal became both an irresistible force and an immovable object. Strong, accurate serves put Djokovic on the defensive throughout the next game, which Nadal finished with a backhand winner. 8-7 Nadal. In the last game, Nadal’s trademark hustling induced an overhead error, which was followed by a spectacular backhand passing shot. The exasperated Djokovic then missed two forehands to end the epic.

“I congratulate my opponent because he showed courage at the right moments,” said the gracious loser. “A break down in the fifth, he played some great shots from the baseline. That’s why he’s a champion.”

An emotional Toni Nadal, thinking about Rafa’s long, uncertain road back to the top, said, “For us, it’s really a miracle.”

“You can make an argument that match was the greatest we’ve ever witnessed on a clay court,” offered McEnroe. A strong argument, in fact. For bold shotmaking, unparalleled defense, and sustained drama, this athletic masterpiece surpassed the riveting 1984 French Open final between Ivan Lendl and McEnroe.

Nadal still trails Federer in Grand Slam titles, 17 to 12. But he can thank The Mighty Fed and The Djoker for bringing out the best in him in the greatest all-time matches on the three surfaces of tennis during the past five years. The Big Three in this Golden Age of Tennis have treated the sports world to the 2008 Wimbledon final on grass, the 2012 Australian Open final on hard courts, and this Roland Garros semifinal on clay.

Nadal put it best when he said, “These kinds of matches make the sport big.”

* * * * *

 

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