Rafael Nadal won his seventh Roland Garros title on Monday, defeating Novak Djokovic 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 and in the process becoming the most-crowned man in Open Era history at the French Open.
Picking up where they left off on Sunday night, the two best players in the world served up an incredible spectacle during which Nadal fought back from his break down overnight, 2-1 down in the fourth set, to win the title in the most unexpected of circumstances. A double fault from Djokovic handed him his record-breaking win in 3 hours and 50 minutes of play, over two days.
Nadal thus becomes the undisputed King of Clay, overtaking the great Bjorn Borg who won the French Open six times. Just 26, Nadal will now dream of adding more titles on the beloved red earth of Roland Garros, the ‘Casa de Rafa’ as his fans like to call it. The Spanish second seed was hugely impressive all fortnight, and though he was pushed all the way by the world No.1, dug deep into his reserves of energy, experience and tactical acumen to fully deserve his triumph.
Djokovic had already shown what an incredible champion he is by saving four match points against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the fourth round. That sheer bloody-mindedness, allied to the best all-round technique in the game right now, brought him back from the brink on Sunday night when he was two sets and a break down. Had 'the Djoker' taken this match to five sets, who knows how it may have turned out, but Nadal was not to be denied.
The neutrals were left wanting more today, simply because the standard of tennis was so breathtaking. Even though play only lasted 50 minutes and nine games in all, Act 2 of this final will be remembered for its intensity and for the unique Monday atmosphere in the stands, which were packed with excited fans.
This final will go down in history then, not just for Rafa’s achievement, but also because Djokovic just failed in his bid to become the first player since Rod Laver to hold all four Grand Slams simultaneously. But that is not the half of it. There was the dramatic weather over two days, the swirling rain that had the last word on Sunday night and returned on Monday to halt play for a handful of minutes, and then the sun that broke through the clouds as if to welcome Nadal into the pantheon of tennis legends.
And, lest we forget, there was the tennis, simply stunning in its power, precision and athleticism. The margins were so close, the stakes so high and yet both champions hit the ball with such talent and freedom of expression we were left shaking our heads time and again, both yesterday and today.
50 minutes of pure pleasure
The turning point of Monday’s play came at the outset, when Rafa crucially broke back to immediately get himself back on level terms. At 30-all Djokovic netted after a long exchange that he had dominated, and promptly bashed himself on the forehead with the strings of his racquet. Break point went Rafa’s way in the most dramatic fashion, a net cord bringing ‘Nole’ into the net and opening the court for a pass that Nadal needed no second invitation to bury, cross-court.
Nadal’s service was straight in the groove and he held to lead 3-2 to put the pressure straight on Djokovic. With balls flying to all corners, Nole clipped the line and Nadal just missed in the next game and the Serb held for 3-3. The sky was darkening and Nadal held for 4-3 with an astonishing get that became a winner as the stunned Djokovic watched it come improbably back over the net.
The rain was coming down now and thunder even rumbling overhead but still we went on, with Djokovic showing incredible self-belief to serve-and-volley at 30-30 and force an error from the Spaniard. Back at 4-4 a point later, we were entering crunch time and now it was Nadal’s moment to show his courage, serving big and dominating the next game to lead 5-4.
The rain was getting heavier and for a moment it looked as though the actors would leave the stage, but after a five-minute break, during which Nadal had ample time to dwell on being four points from glory and Novak to stare defeat in the face, they were back. Djokovic showed no signs of nerves, hitting down-the-line and cross-court rockets to level at 5-5.
The penultimate game was typically thrilling, Nadal slamming a 201 km/h ace for 30-0 but then watching a disputed line-call and an out-of-this-world cross-court backhand bring the Serb level at 30-30. An unforced error long and a lob that drifted long were enough for the Majorcan second seed to lead 6-5.
Nadal needed to attack now, with a tie-break looming and he did just that in the last game, returning beautifully to set up the points and then stepping into the court to force destiny his way. At 30-40, suddenly Rafael was one point away from glory, and when Djokovic improbably double-faulted the title was Rafa’s, again.
It was a cruel end to a match which had thrilled fans around the world for two days, but while the shock and disappointment of that final point will fade, the images of an epic contest between two giants of the game will live long in the memory.
Speaking after the match, Djokovic was quick to look back to the Tsonga match, and give credit to Nadal: "I could easily have lost the match in fourth round or even more against Tsonga, but I managed to come to the finals for the first time in my career. I should be happy about that, of course. I will be and I am, but in this moment I am disappointed about this loss because I thought I started to play better in the third set and felt like I could take this match to a fifth set, and then, you know, everything could be possible, but, yeah, unfortunately there has been a rain delay yesterday when I started to feel really good on the court. But look, you know, I don't want to find an excuse in that, because the first rain delay maybe helped me a little bit; the second helped him. So that's the way it goes, and the better player won today. So congratulations for that."
Nadal spoke of the psychological battle that was waged out on Philippe Chatrier Court over two days. "I had already lost three Grand Slam finals against him so it was important to win mentally," he explained. "The mental part is also more important on clay and my game naturally adapts very well to this surface... Novak plays fantastic and is having a great season. But you can't be perfect all the time," Nadal concluded. And that was doubtless Djokovic's only shortcoming throughout the final - he simply wasn't perfect all the time...