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Steve Flink: Nadal takes another substantial historical step

6/12/2012 3:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

When historians reflect on the showdown between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic at the 2012 French Open, they will classify this battle as one of the most consequential matches ever played. Here was Djokovic, in search of a fourth consecutive Grand Slam singles championship crown, hoping to establish himself as the first man since Rod Laver won his second Grand Slam in 1969 to sweep that many majors in a row. Moreover, Djokovic knew full well that he could record a career Grand Slam in the process. There was Nadal, determined in his own inimitable way to become the first man ever to capture the prestigious Roland Garros title seven times, willing himself with every fiber of his being to avoid a fourth straight loss at his sport’s showcase events to his formidable and unwavering Serbian adversary. Nadal surely realized that a victory over Djokovic in this highly anticipated encounter would put him into a tie with Federer (2003-2010), Pete Sampras (1993-2000) and Bjorn Borg (1974-81) as the only men to capture at least one major for eight consecutive years.

The historical implications of this gripping clash were almost painfully apparent to and for the players. This was so much more than just another Grand Slam tournament final; it was, unmistakably, a must win moment for both combatants. Djokovic recognized that being within striking distance of sweeping four majors in a row was an opportunity he will probably never have again. And Nadal would admit after his duel with Djokovic that in his mind there was simply no way he could justify, absorb or accept another monumental defeat at a major against his primary rival. The stakes could have been no higher for this contest, and these two commendable individuals deserved to perform in the bright sunshine of Paris, in a celebratory splendor befitting the occasion.

And yet, they were afforded no such conditions. On Sunday, they commenced their appointment under dark, cloudy skies, and only four games into the proceedings the rain began to fall. They played through it admirably before being driven off the court near the end of the second set, then returned 34 minutes later to play their way through the end of the second set, on through the third, and into the early stages of the fourth set. The burdensome rain kept falling, yet these two towering professionals got on ably with the task at hand before play was halted by the French officials for the day. Were they performing at peak level efficiency? Not entirely. Yet, under the circumstances, was their level of play astonishing? You better believe it.

The first game of this battle for supremacy on the red clay was indicative of what was to come. Nadal was always opening up leads, only for Djokovic to fight back ferociously. With Djokovic serving in that opening game, Nadal was primed. He immediately struck a brilliant forehand inside-in winner behind Djokovic on the first point, and surged to 0-40. Djokovic collected the next two points, then cracked an inside-out forehand winner with all of his might to reach deuce. But Nadal, unswerving, drove a flattened out two-hander crosscourt for an outright winner from outside the alley. At break point, Nadal coaxed a two-handed backhand error from Djokovic with a trademark heavy topspin forehand.

Buoyed by that opening game service break, Nadal served an ace down the T for 30-0 and then held confidently at love for 2-0. The Spaniard was rolling, sensing a chance to break the first set wide open. He opened the third game with a thundering forehand winner down the line, going behind Djokovic. Nadal advanced to 15-40 in that game as Djokovic approached crosscourt off the backhand, giving the Spaniard a big opening to make a forehand passing shot winner up the line. Two points later, serving at 30-40, Djokovic went for broke with an inside-out forehand, but was off the mark with that shot. Nadal had swiftly moved to 3-0, taking 13 of 18 points in that span. He was up by two service breaks, seemingly headed toward a decisive first set win.

But then he seemed to tighten up considerably. At 3-0, 40-30, Nadal served deep with good pace to the Djokovic forehand, got the short return he wanted, and went for the blockbuster inside-out forehand winner. But the Spaniard overcooked that shot, driving it wide. Unnerved slightly by that missed opportunity to widen his lead, Nadal made a wild unforced error off the forehand and then missed a backhand down the line wide that was unprovoked to lose his serve. Djokovic had been given a reprieve of sorts. He held on for 2-3 at 30, and his spirits seemed decidedly bolstered. With Nadal serving with a tenuous 3-2 lead, the Spaniard opened that game with a double fault into the net. Nonetheless, he led 40-30, but Djokovic responded with a scintillating inside-out forehand winner from behind the baseline. Nadal had two more game points, but Djokovic’s growing aggression and precision off the forehand was too much for his opponent in both instances. The Serbian rushed Nadal into a forehand mistake and then unleashed a forehand crosscourt winner of his own to thwart Nadal.

Having squandered three game points, Nadal was temporarily shaken, double faulting to fall behind break point. A revitalized Djokovic broke back for 3-3 with a stinging backhand down the line. From two breaks down, against all odds, Djokovic was back on serve. But not for long. In the seventh game, Djokovic saved a break point at 30-40, but Nadal garnered another when he ran around his backhand for a telling forehand inside-in that the Serbian could not answer. At break point down, Djokovic double faulted. He had made good on only three of eight first serves in that crucial game, and had dropped his serve improbably for the third time. Now Nadal regained the initiative. Djokovic caught him off guard with a spectacular forehand return winner down the line for 0-15, but Nadal collected four points in a row from there to reach 5-3, taking that last point by unloading a crackling forehand that drew a backhand error from the Serbian.

Djokovic, however, was not conceding the set. At 3-5, he allowed Nadal only one point, releasing the full range of his talent in that service game. The Serbian made a backhand drop shot winner, a dazzling forehand topspin lob winner, and an immaculately struck two-handed backhand crosscourt winner. Yet Nadal was settled now, and he served the set out with his own kind of panache. Nadal made it to 30-0 in the tenth game with a bounce smash winner. Advancing to 30-15, he got Djokovic on the run with a forehand down the line, and then delicately released a backhand drop shot winner down the line. At set point, Nadal’s first serve to the Djokovic backhand elicited a short sliced return. Nadal pounced, ripping an inside-out forehand winner with no inhibition and much relish. Set to Nadal, 6-4.

In the opening game of the second set, Djokovic double faulted at break point down for the second time in the match. He had connected with only four of eight first serves in that game, and even when he made first serves he was not winning nearly enough free points. Nadal remained hard pressed to hold his own serve, but, after three deuces, he travelled to 2-0, closing out that game with a forehand drive volley into the clear and a winning overhead. Here was Nadal, ahead by a set and a break, right where he wanted to be. But the willful Djokovic retaliated with the same boldness and fighting spirit he had displayed in the opening set. Despite making only four of eight first serves in the third game, he obstinately held on from deuce, taking that game with a forehand inside-in winner. He broke Nadal easily at 15 in the next game with another brilliant topspin lob winner off the forehand for 2-2. The Spaniard missed four out of five first serves in that game.

Djokovic was feeling the ball extraordinarily well and finding his range. He held at 30 for 3-2, defending skillfully until he could shift onto offense, releasing a brilliant backhand down the line winner to take the lead. Nadal had lost three games in a row, just as he had in the opening set. He knew he had to buckle down briskly, and he did just that. Urging himself on, playing with raised intensity and purposefulness, Nadal held at 15 for 3-3, acing Djokovic down the T at 40-15. In the seventh game, the Spaniard struck gold again. Djokovic was serving at 30-40, and missed another first serve. Nadal found his opening, driving an inside-out forehand with verve for a winner. Nadal had refashioned another lead, and Djokovic was infuriated with himself, smashing his racket into the Perrier drink box by his chair at the changeover.

The French crowd was jeering the Serbian as he made his way back on court, but he did not take the bait and regained his composure. But Nadal was brimming with confidence. He held for 5-3 at love, making no fewer than three forehand inside-out winners in that stellar game. A two sets to love lead was within the Spaniard’s grasp. But after one hour and 52 minutes of play, the contest was halted by rain. The grounds crew was ready to put the tarp on the court, but the rain subsided slightly. The match was delayed needlessly for 34 minutes. When they returned, Djokovic fell behind 15-40, saved one set point with a service winner, but Nadal came through on the second, flicking a backhand pass crosscourt at full stretch spectacularly for a winner.

The rain would not cease, but Nadal was closing in on a monumental triumph. Only once in his career has he lost a tennis match anywhere in the world after winning the first two sets in a best of five set encounter, and that was back in 2005 in the final of Miami when Roger Federer turned the tables on the still 18-year-old Spaniard. Djokovic was well aware precisely what he was up against. Nadal pressed on resolutely, but so, too, did Djokovic. The Spaniard saved a break point in the first game of the third set, defending brilliantly until he could regain the initiative, moving forward to put away an easy smash. Nadal broke for 2-0 at the cost of only one point. At break point in that game, Nadal had the Serbian on the run, using a forehand down the line to set up a forehand crosscourt. Djokovic missed a running backhand under extreme duress.

Two sets up, ahead a break in the third, Nadal was not far away from victory. In that third game of the third set, he did not miss a first serve, but he found himself too often having to defend, and his forehand went slightly off the mark. Djokovic broke at 15. The pattern was familiar. But the conditions were deteriorating considerably. Since the first rain break, the court had become more slippery, and, more importantly, the balls were getting ridiculously waterlogged and heavy. To his full credit, Djokovic was unperturbed, and his capacity to hit through the ball and to hit through the court was remarkable. Moreover, he started returning stupendously, sending every ball back a foot or so from the baseline, sometimes even deeper than that. To make matters worse for Nadal, Djokovic at last found his bigger and better first serve. The complexion of the match was altered substantially.

At 1-2 in the third set, Djokovic trailed 0-30, but he held on after a couple of deuces for 2-2. Nadal was now under siege, unable to find anywhere to serve effectively against his surging adversary. It didn’t matter if he went to the backhand or the forehand, because Djokovic was timing his returns off both wings impeccably. On top of that, Djokovic was refusing to allow Nadal to bully him around the court. When Nadal would come at him with the inside out forehand, Djokovic would roll the ball back deep to the Spaniard’s backhand. There was virtually no way for Nadal to end points with Djokovic playing so sublimely, and the wet weather taking much of the sting out of Nadal’s shots and minimizing the effect of his heavy topspin.

Nadal, meanwhile, was so frustrated and perplexed by his inability to stay on top of points that he started pressing. At 2-2, the Spaniard was broken easily, making a forehand unforced error at 15-40. Djokovic held at 15 for 4-2 with an ace and a service winner. Nadal made a desperate stand in the seventh game to weather an increasingly arduous storm. He had a game point, only to miss a backhand down the line that was unprovoked.  Djokovic broke him again for 5-2, then held at love commandingly to take the set 6-2. Nadal had marched through the tournament until then, winning 20 sets in a row.

Nadal’s consternation was apparent as the fourth set commenced, while Djokovic remained almost unconscious, going for his shots with abandon, hitting breathtaking winners at will, stifling Nadal at every intersection. The match was now two hours, 43 minutes old. Djokovic was inspired and his outlook had brightened significantly, while Nadal was agitated by the miserable court conditions, his inability to close out the match in the third set, and his opponent’s vastly improved play. Nadal reached 40-30 in the opening game of the fourth set, but Djokovic produced another blazing forehand inside-out winner. Nadal missed a backhand crosscourt wide, and then Djokovic passed Nadal easily off the backhand for the early break. Djokovic promptly held at love for 2-0. Startling at it was, Djokovic had won eight consecutive games.

At last Nadal found a way to get back on the scoreboard. He held at 15 for 1-2, serving an ace down the T for 40-15, then unleashing a forehand inside in winner behind Djokovic. Out came the officials onto the court to stop the match again. Nadal was livid about being made to play through the hard rain with the impossibly heavy balls, but he probably was upset with himself for not closing out the contest from a break up in the third set. In any case, it was clearly better for Nadal to stop at that stage, and when they later announced play was cancelled for the day, it was a definite piece of good fortune for a player who had lost his physical and emotional edge. Nadal had the benefit of some sound advice from his Uncle Toni and a chance to reconstruct his game plan, while Djokovic had to stop just when he had begun to gather some steam.

The players returned at 1PM on Monday to complete the match. From the outset of the resumption, Nadal seemed back in sync, ready in essence to start all over again. Djokovic was composed but he was no longer in the zone he had reached the evening before. He remained aggressive but the winners were not flowing off his racket with such devastating regularity, and he seemed more conscious of what he was doing. The third game of that fourth set on Sunday had been a big one for Nadal, who had managed to keep himself in the set rather than drifting two breaks down.

When they continued on Monday, Nadal propitiously broke back at once for 2-2. At 30-30, Nadal lunged for an awkward forehand, looping the ball back with heavy spin but little pace. Djokovic went for the kill on an inside-out forehand, but netted that high ball. At break point, luck was on Nadal’s side of the net again. His forehand crosscourt clipped the net cord and came relatively low over the net. Djokovic moved forward for his backhand down the line approach, but could not do enough with that shot. Nadal was set up perfectly for the backhand crosscourt passing shot, which he drove confidently for a winner into a wide open space. He was back to 2-2, and very much back in business.

Gone were the struggles Nadal had on serve the previous day. He held at love for 3-2, commencing that game by prevailing in a riveting 27 stroke rally, finishing off that point with an inside-in forehand winner. Djokovic had his bearings, though, and he held at 15 for 3-3, clipping the sideline with a backhand down the line winner. Nadal was unstoppable off the forehand in the seventh game, drilling an inside-out winner for 30-0, finding the open court with a short crosscourt winner after pulling Djokovic off the court. Nadal held at 15 for 4-3. By this stage of the set, rain had intruded again, but Djokovic held gamely at 30 for 4-4, closing that game with an ace out wide in the Ad court.

And yet, for the first time in the match, Djokovic was finding no openings on Nadal’s serve. The Spaniard was moving his delivery adroitly around the box, keeping Djokovic off balance on the Serbian’s returns. Nadal held at love for 5-4, putting three out of four first serves in. The most telling point in that game was at 30-0, when Nadal walloped an inside-out forehand, followed with an inside-in zinger off that wing, and then went back to the inside-out forehand for a sparkling winner. At 4-5, Djokovic served to stay in the match, and played a terrific game, holding at 15 with poise, precision and aggression.

Nadal served an ace down the T for 30-0 at 5-5, but Djokovic explosively made it back to 30-30 with a crackling forehand inside out placement and another huge shot off that side that was unmanageable for his opponent. But Nadal went back to his trusted heavy topspin forehand crosscourt on the next point, and the ball bounded high. Djokovic drove his shot long. At 40-30, Nadal dictated off his forehand, came forward for a well-executed forehand drop volley, and Djokovic’s lob was narrowly long. Nadal had been tested, but still held for 6-5. In his last four service games, Nadal had swept 16 of 19 points.

And so Djokovic served to stay in contention for the second time. When he moved to 30-15, Djokovic seemed headed for a fourth set tie-break. But a forehand down the line return from Nadal drew a forehand crosscourt mistake from Djokovic: 30-30. Then Nadal kept himself in the next point with a deep forehand slice. From there, he was ascendant in the rally, cracking a pair of inside-out forehands and then a forehand winner down the line. That display of brilliant ball striking off his favorite side lifted Nadal to match point. Djokovic tried a deep second serve down the middle, hoping to make Nadal play a backhand return from the Ad court. But he double faulted long. For the third time in the match, he had served a double at break point down, but this one was the most damaging of them all.

Nadal was victorious 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5. He had broken a tie with Bjorn Borg for the most men’s French Open singles titles, taking his seventh in style. Chris Evert secured seven women’s singles championships between 1974 and 1986, but Nadal seems certain to break that record sometime in the next couple of years. He also should break the impressive record he shares with Federer, Sampras and Borg for consecutive year victories at the majors. Nadal has now won at least one Grand Slam event a year eight seasons in a row (from 2005-2012), but the feeling grows that he will extend that streak next year, if not in Paris then in one of the three other majors. He now possesses eleven career majors, and that places Nadal in a tie with Rod Laver and Borg on the all-time men’s list, one behind Roy Emerson, three behind Sampras, and five behind Federer. I can’t envision him not passing Laver, Borg and Emerson, and he might well catch or surpass Sampras. Catching Federer will be a longshot, but I would put nothing past this indefatigable fellow who is the best competitor that I have witnessed in 47 years of watching top flight tennis.

As for Nadal’s ongoing rivalry with Djokovic, it will be fascinating to follow. Nadal, of course, had lost seven in a row to his main rival, and that streak included those three Grand Slam final round losses in a row at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year, and then the epic five set, five hour, 53 minute gem at the Australian Open this season. Since that excruciating setback in Melbourne, Nadal has knocked off Djokovic three times running, all on the clay courts of Europe this spring. He has a 19-14 career series lead over Djokovic, and the Spaniard unmistakably has the upper hand again. But Djokovic will inevitably carve out his share of wins over Nadal on the other surfaces. This rivalry is going to flourish over the next several months, and across the next couple of years.

Meanwhile, Nadal can be very proud of himself for winning probably the single most important tennis match he has played since eclipsing Federer in their incomparable Wimbledon final of 2008. Under the most trying of circumstances, dealing with abysmal weather conditions that hampered him even more than his opponent, admitting to himself that he had no alternative but to win, Rafael Nadal—indisputably the greatest clay court player who has yet lived, arguably the most honorable champion in today’s world of tennis, surely the sport’s ultimate professional—came through for a record breaking seventh singles title at Roland Garros. He turned 26 in the middle of the tournament, and the hope here is that he is around the upper levels of tennis for a good many more years.