No matter whatever else happens in tennis’ clay-court season, Rafael Nadal is almost an automatic at the French Open.
Nadal won an unprecedented ninth title at Roland Garros and now only trails Roger Federer on the men’s grand slam ladder after seeing off Novak Djokovic 3-6 7-5 6-2 6-4 on a third consecutive day of steamy weather in Paris, which did no favors for the Serb — who appeared to vomit slightly in the last set.
Their tussle couldn’t compare to last year’s five-set classic in the semifinals or their six-hour duel at the Australian Open in 2012 but the final outcome, to Nadal’s delight, is that he tied Pete Sampras on 14 majors, three behind the 32-year-old Federer.
“You are a great champion, Rafa,” Sampras said in an email sent to CNN. “Congratulations on number 14.”
Nadal was supposed to be vulnerable here. He merely won one European clay-court title this year before Paris, his lowest haul since 2004 — and that year the Spaniard skipped the campaign’s second major.
There were upset defeats in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, and Nadal’s coach, Toni Nadal, admitted he only won in Madrid because his opponent, Kei Nishikori, was hurt.
With every passing encounter against Djokovic at the French Open, the Serb had won more games and kept Nadal on court for longer. He was getting closer.
His victory over Nadal in the Rome final in May, his fourth straight overall against the left-hander, gave his backers greater hope.
“My best wasn’t (like it was) against him in Rome,” Djokovic told reporters.
Nadal, however, stormed into this year’s finale in record time — for him — playing a near flawless three final sets against 2013 finalist David Ferrer, crushing Andy Murray in the semis and lifting his game when it mattered against Djokovic, minus a rare hiccup late in the fourth set.
“Mentally I was so strong,” said Nadal, 28. “I really wanted to defeat him. When there were problems cropping up, I managed to find the solutions.”
Yes, if Djokovic needed any reminding, Nadal at the French Open — in a best-of-five format — is a different character to the one that competes in prep tournaments in a shorter format. He’s 66-1 at the French, with those nine titles alongside. Despite that, the notoriously tough Toni Nadal said his nephew was “not special.”
Djokovic, in tears during the trophy presentation, will have to wait to complete his grand slam collection. He missed out, too, on reclaiming the No. 1 ranking from Nadal.
While Nadal’s knees have constantly troubled the Mallorcan throughout his career, the heat has never been Djokovic’s friend.
He suffered against Ernests Gulbis on Friday, the first time high temperatures were a factor this fortnight, but had enough to see off the rejuvenated Latvian in four sets.
On Sunday — unlike two days ago — he donned a cap from the outset in an attempt to lessen the effects of the sun. Djokovic said in his post-match news conference it was “normal that you have ups and downs” physically against Nadal at the French Open but his influential co-coach, Marian Vajda, blamed his two-match dip on a “stomach problem.”
He lamented his charge’s normally splendid return game.
“I was not happy with his return today,” Vajda told reporters. But he added, “Rafa changed his serve very good, mixed it up and caught him a bit off balance. He served very smart, where to serve and Novak was a bit unsure.”
As popular as Djokovic is for his dance moves, humor — and chatting to ball kids during rain delays — it was Nadal who received the louder applause as they walked on court.
Djokovic is always playing catch up when it comes to matching Federer, Nadal, and even Murray, in support, at least at the start of proceedings.
Both players were untroubled on serve until the eighth game, when Nadal’s forehand — uncharacteristically — went off. He missed three inside-out forehands to gift Djokovic a 5-3 lead.
For the first time in six tries at Roland Garros, Djokovic claimed the opening set against Nadal.
A more aggressive Nadal broke for 4-2 in the second, yet he didn’t cruise thereafter. A double fault contributed to an immediate break back and the set went on serve until 6-5. Serving to stay in the second set for a second time, Djokovic crumbled. Nadal let out a large roar after pummeling a forehand winner for 7-5.
The tennis was hardly scintillating but by the end of the second, Nadal’s forehand returned. The points and games were becoming extended, exactly the type of battle that favored Nadal.
The outlook shifted.
“Without that second set, I don’t know if I have this trophy with me now,” said Nadal.
A fired-up Nadal, the crowd still on the defending champion’s side and the issues with his body all seemed to weigh down Djokovic.
He dumped a simple looking backhand volley into the net on a serve-and-volley to trail 2-0.
Djokovic’s frustration boiled over when he slammed his racket to the court after erring on a cross-court backhand at 2-4. That seventh game would be pivotal.
Nadal couldn’t convert a handful of game points but slammed the door shut when Djokovic suddenly found himself with a break point. He sealed the 10-minute game with the aid of trademark defense — and an unforced backhand error from the Serb.
It was a matter of “when” not “if” Nadal would break in the fourth and it came in the sixth game.
But what happened next wasn’t in the script: A shaky Nadal forehand, double fault and errant smash handed Djokovic a lifeline, 4-3. Such a nervy game from Nadal in a grand slam final is almost never witnessed.
Wanting more tennis, the fans, for the first time, began chanting, “Novak, Novak.” A re-energized Djokovic obliged to make it 4-4.
Djokovic’s time to pounce was now, but he let Nadal off the hook. Allowing Nadal to convert a forehand winner down the line, Djokovic pounded his head with his racket.
Djokovic blew a 30-0 lead in the final game, undone by a double fault on match point after a fan called out during his earlier service motion, forcing him to start over.
“I was happy with (Novak’s) performance” in the tournament, said Vajda. “Maybe he had these problems a bit, he was fighting himself. It’s always tough to lose in the final but I think he’s a fighter. He will move to the (next) grand slam.”
Nadal sunk to his knees, and like women’s champion Maria Sharapova on Saturday after her victory over Simona Halep made the trek to the players’ box.
The outcome was even sweeter for Nadal after a back injury rendered him less than 100% in January’s Australian Open final against Stan Wawrinka.
Before turning his thoughts to Wimbledon, where Nadal has been upset the previous two years, you can be sure he’ll be doing some celebrating Sunday night. And it’s in southwest Paris, again.
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