Nadal, of course, comported himself honorably, telling the Serbian that his day would come at Roland Garros, doing nothing to rub salt into his opponents deep wounds. Nadal enjoyed some amusing moments with six time French Open victor Bjorn Borg, another player who responded to both triumph and failure with equanimity. Nadal and Borgthe two greatest clay court players in historyhad some laughs and the Swedes affection for the Spaniard was readily apparent. In turn, an emotional Nadal released some tears of joy as the Spanish National Anthem was played. These were moments to cherish: Borg greeting both players jovially; Djokovic speaking to the crowd in French and meeting the moment so magnanimously; and Nadal just acting like Nadal again, celebrating his triumph in a manner befitting only the greatest of champions, fully understanding the plight of Djokovic.
Lets review the match, which was not up there with the Nadal-Djokovic five set classics played at the Australian Open in 2012 or here at the French Open in the semifinals a year ago. Both players struggled to find peak form, and that made it a fascinating encounter in every way. Djokovic seemed physically drained at times and his level of play fluctuated wildly, and Nadal was exceedingly nervous in the early stages. It made for great theater even if it was not among their finest duels, but the fact remained that these two titans still performed stupendously at least sporadically across the long three-and-a-half hour skirmish.
It was, of course, their 42nd career head to head appointment, with Nadal increasing his lead in the riveting series to 23-19, ending a four match losing streak against his foremost rival, moving ahead 4-3 in Grand Slam finals against Djokovic, and defeating the Serbian for the sixth time without a loss at the worlds premier clay court event. This was a tough match for Nadal in so many ways because he did not commence the battle on his own terms and he therefore had to fight from behind to get the job done.
Djokovics ball striking in the first set was exemplary off both wings, and he controlled the tempo almost entirely from the back of the court in that segment of the contest. Djokovic was swinging freely, executing his game as if he was on a hard court, keeping the points relatively short, refusing to allow the Spaniard any rhythm. It was an impressive display from Djokovic across the board. In his first three service games, he allowed Nadal only three points, and the Spaniard was hard pressed to stamp his authority on the proceedings.
Nadal was serving from behind, feeling the burden of having to hold every time, realizing that Djokovic was ruling the rallies time and again. Nadal kept up his end of the bargain for a while, dropping only four points in his three service games en route to 3-3. The fact remained that Djokovic was clearly playing the better brand of tennis. After being pushed to deuce before holding for 4-3, Djokovic reached 15-40 on the Nadal serve in eighth game as Nadal struggled to find his range off the forehand, pressing a couple of times off that side. Nadal responded as he so often does with deep determination, releasing a forehand winner down the line and then sending a first serve into the body that Djokovic could not handle.
It was deuce, but Djokovic was unwavering in his pursuit of a crucial break. Nadal unleashed an inside out forehand but Djokovic was waiting for it, driving a forehand down the line for a winner. Plainly unsettled, Nadal missed an inside out forehand wide at break point down, and Djokovic had travelled to 5-3. Serving for the set, Djokovic was given a stern test by Nadal. The Spaniard had a 15-40 lead in that ninth game, but his forehand let him down on the next two points, and a pair of unforced errors off that side allowed Djokovic back to deuce. Djokovic took the next two points with patented plays, driving a backhand down the line to force Nadal into an error, and then using a first serve to set up an inside out forehand that was too good. At full stretch, Nadal sent a forehand long. Set to Djokovic, 6-3.
Only twice previously in this illustrious rivalry had Nadal recouped from a set down to beat Djokovic. Now he had to find a way to make that happen again, and it was not easy. Nadal did have the benefit of serving first in the second set, and on his way to a 3-2 lead Nadal held each time without undue difficulty. With Djokovic serving in the sixth game, Nadal reached break point at 30-40, and had the court open for a crosscourt backhand that Djokovic had no way to counter. But he sent it just over the baseline, and umpire Pascal Maria checked the mark to confirm that the ball was long. Nadal soon earned a second break point with an inside out forehand winner that created another opportunity for that same shot. He forced Djokovic into an error on an open stance sliced forehand.
Nadal had a 4-2 lead and was seemingly on his way to controlling the set. But he opened the seventh game with an abysmal netted forehand error. At 15-30, Nadal double faulted and Djokovic broke at 30. He made an aggressive forehand return from the ad court and Nadal tried to take it early off the forehand and drive it down the line. But he miss-hit that shot, and that cost him a crucial game. The two players were back on serve. With Djokovic serving at 3-4, 30-40, Nadal had another break point but he inexplicably drove a two-hander long. Djokovic took command, holding on for 4-4 with a forehand winner off a short ball.
Both players knew that Nadal needed to avoid at all costs going down two sets to love. The Spaniard held at 15 for 5-4 by raising his game again at a critical moment, becoming more aggressive when he had no other options. He held at 15 for 5-5. Djokovic rolled to 40-15 in the tenth game but Nadal struck back boldly. Djokovic had reached 30-15 in that game with a surprise serve-and-volley combination, serving wide to the Nadal backhand and making a first volley drop shot winner. But when he tried the same tactic at 40-15, Nadal anticipated it, driving a backhand return winner past the charging Djokovic. But Djokovic still held on for 5-5.
Nadal held at love for 6-5, serving an ace down the T for 30-0, closing that game with a scintillating forehand winner down the line off a backhand crosscourt return from Djokovic. The pressure was back on Djokovic to hold on in the following game and purchase a ticket to a tie-break, but he did not meet that challenge well. At 15-0 in the twelfth game, Djokovic double faulted off the net cord. He was unfortunate at 15-15 when his forehand clipped the net cord and gave Nadal abundant time to drive a forehand winner down the line. A first rate return from Nadal took him to 15-40, double set point, and the Spaniard connected once more with a forehand down the line winner to seal the set. It went 7-5 to the Spaniard, and both players knew that a brand new match was beginning at one set all.
With Nadal serving at 30-30 in the opening game of the third set, Djokovic narrowly missed a forehand inside in winner attempt. On the following point, Djokovic defended superbly, only to give away the point in the end with an unforced error. Nadal had held for 1-0, and then he broke for 2-0. Djokovic served-and-volleyed again at break point down, and Nadals return was relatively high. Nadal did well to get the return back in play, and Djokovic could not execute the backhand volley. Nadal had the break for 2-0. He was flowing now and his outlook was decidedly altered.
The Spaniard held at love for 3-0 with a dazzling inside out forehand and an ace from 30-0. But Djokovic was fighting with quiet ferocity, realizing how he needed to reestablish his momentum and find a way to halt the progress of Nadal. Djokovic held on for 1-3 and had a break point, but he was way off balance as he made contact with a backhand down the line, and steered it wide. Nadal gamely held on for 4-1, sending a 199 kilometer first serve down the T that elicited a weak, short return from the Serbian. Nadal pounced, moving forward briskly to make an inside out forehand winner.
Djokovic held easily for 2-4 and then gave is all to break back in the seventh game, which went to deuce five times. Nadal held on his sixth game point after saving one break point by catching Djokovic off guard with an immaculate backhand drop shot winner down the line. Nadal had moved to 5-2, and the loss of that game left Djokovic frustrated. Djokovic served two aces on his way to a 40-15 lead in the following game but Nadal collected four points in a row to seal the set as Djokovic drove a forehand long, perhaps somewhat in agitation or anger. Set to Nadal, 6-2.
The insurance break at the end of the third allowed Nadal to start serving in the fourth. He left for a bathroom break at the end of the third, as he had done after the second. Nadal held at love for 1-0 in the fourth and both players held to make it 2-2. Nadal held at love for 3-2 before Djokovic had two game point opportunities when he tried to serve his way to 3-3. Nadal erased them both and advanced to break point. With some of his best defending of the entire match, Nadal coaxed an error from Djokovic, who pulled a backhand wide. Nadal was right where he wanted to be, ahead two sets to one, serving at 4-2 in the fourth set, looking to close out the account with no hesitation.
Butas was the case when he served at 4-2 in the second setNadal got very tight. He started that seventh game with a forehand unforced error in the net, made it back to 15-15, and then double faulted, one of only four he would serve in the match. At 15-30, he seemed in great shape when he hammered an inside out forehand authoritatively, sending Djokovic scurrying to reach it. Djokovic threw up a desperate, high defensive lob off the forehand that seemed certain to go long, but that remarkable shot somehow stayed in the court. Nadal missed an overhead on the bounce. He would save a break point to reach 30-40 but Djokovic broke him with a crosscourt backhand return that drew an error off the forehand from the Spaniard.
Djokovic held at 15 for 4-4, and his state of mind seemed markedly improved. He had the spring back in his step and he wore a much brighter expression. At 4-4, Nadal surely realized how quickly the set and perhaps the match could slip away if he did not hold. A forehand down the line winner took Nadal to 30-15 but Djokovic outmaneuvered Nadal to reach 30-30. Nadal drove a backhand crosscourt at a fine angle to force Djokovic into an error for 40-30, but then was caught blind-sided by a crackling forehand return from the Serbian off a first serve. Nadal was hurried into an error, and it was deuce.
But Nadal was bearing down as only he can under duress. He jumped all over a short ball from Djokovic and made an inside out forehand winner, and then Djokovic drove a two-handed return long. With that clutch hold, Nadal had a 5-4 lead, but Djokovic bolted to 30-0 in the tenth game. A running forehand crosscourt from Nadal provoked a backhand error from Djokovic relatively high on his two-hander, and then Djokovic hit a decent approach to the Nadal backhand. The Spaniard laced his two-hander crosscourt for a winner, and suddenly it was 30-30.
The pressure was squarely back on Djokovics shoulders. Nadals return was not deep, but Djokovic misfired with an inside out forehand, and the No. 2 seed was match point down. He missed his first serve by trying to hit a flat delivery out wide to Nadals forehand, and then he had to wait too long before hitting a second serve because a fan screamed something from the stands. After the brief delay, Djokovic double faulted long. Nadal had gained the victory unpredictably, although the same thing happened to Djokovic at match point down against Nadal in the 2012 final, when he served a nearly identical double fault at 5-6 in the fourth set.
For Nadal, concluding a contest on that particular note took nothing away from it. As he explained later Its difficult. At that moment you cannot feel that it was a double fault. Only feeling is that you won Roland Garros, no? Thats the real thing. Sorry for him. It was a little bit unfair what happened in the last point between his first and second serve. It happens sometimes in the big stadiums. Nothing is wrong with the crowd, but that can happen. Probably that distracts him a little bit more than usual. That combined with the pressure that is match point, makes him double fault. Sorry for him. But for me personally, finish one way or the other, doesnt make a difference.
What does make a difference is this: Nadal has now won at least one major singles title for ten consecutive years. Borg, Federer and Pete Sampras all won at least one Grand Slam title for eight years in a row, but now he has distanced himself from them. Moreover, Nadal has tied Sampras for second place on the all-time mens list with 14 majors, three behind the revered Federer. By defeating Djokovic for the Roland Garros crown, Nadal has advanced his match record at the French Open to an astounding 66-1, including 35 victories in a row. He is the first man ever to win five championships in a row in Paris.
The win ensures Nadal of remaining at No. 1 in the world. They were playingamong many other thingsfor that status. Nadal also prevented Djokovic from achieving a personal Grand Slam of sorts because with a win in Paris he would have beaten the Spaniard in the final of every Grand Slam event across their storied careers. Nadal may not have been at his technical best but he was most assuredly at his tactical zenith in this battle. His used of the sliced backhand was timely and telling. He coaxed Djokovic into an awful lot of two-handed backhand errors with the soft slice. Moreover, Nadals forehand down the line was dynamic and damaging. That shot combined with his inside out forehand frequently confounded Djokovic. Nadal won 50% of his second serve points while Djokovic stood at only 36% in that category. Nadal saved six of nine break points against him in the match, while Djokovic fought off only four of ten. And, most surprising of all, Nadal released 44 winners, one more than Djokovic. The Spaniard made 38 unforced errors, eleven less than the Serbian.
For Rafael Nadal, it was perhaps his most gratifying Roland Garros title run because he had such a trying clay court campaign and because he suffered a back injury that destroyed his chances of beating Stan Wawrinka in the Australian Open final at the start of the year. Now he has moved beyond those disappointments to a place where he has been so many times: the winners circle at a major tennis tournament. At 28, Rafael Nadal still has the drive and unwavering spirit to win more majors, and to perhaps catch or surpass Roger Federer as the all-time mens Grand Slam tournament champion.
That would be no mean feat.
<Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.
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