When Rafael Nadal takes on Novak Djokovic (42 times now), the world braces itself for a physically brutal contest of endurance and pain as much as skill. Just watching them run eachother ragged from corner to corner is exhausting, and one can only feel for the two colossal figures on court. It is even worse – or better – on clay courts, where the surface compels them to pull their points even longer and harder, driving themselves to the brink of no return. Their bodies are revered the world over for the punishing contest they create over nothing less than a period of three hours at a time.
On Sunday, once again, they met in a Grand Slam Final. Once again, it was the French Open – Nadal’s alley – where he is head and shoulders above any tennis player that has ever lived. That said, Djokovic is a clear no. 2 on clay in this era, way above the others including Ferrer. It was also the only Major missing from the Serb’s cabinet, and he had lost to Nadal four times in the last five years. The defeat in 2012 must have stung even more, for Djokovic entered Paris as the better clay player on form. But somehow, every single time, Nadal finds an extra gear – and a new body – for his favourite Slam, and always begins as favourite, even on one leg.
After more than three and a half hours, again, only one of them was standing. Literally.
A sudden heatwave over the weekend had ensured that these Champions suffered like never before, even though Paris was only half as hot as Melbourne (2012) even at its hottest. The cool conditions had given way to a hot, sultry humid Sunday, but the warriors were pretty sure that their bodies could withstand anything by now.
They were wrong. They were shocked into submission before they knew it. This Nadal–Djokovic contest wasn’t the classic everyone expected. Still, it was an achievement—a new peak scaled in their insane book of Pain De Force. What made it even more captivating is that none of them would give up, and none of them wanted to give away their pain. The Serb was more expressive – because he was back to the traumatizing period where he’d retire in crucial matches because of his gluten intolerance and lack of fitness. He was made to briefly revisit those dark days, while Nadal winced and struggled through his serve games – his forehands rarely whizzing over the net with trademark topspin. His break after winning the third set was more of a breather for the shellshocked audience – many of who wanted to reach out to both and ask them if they wanted to play on a better day. These were two giants stretched to the limit, not by each other, but by the forces of nature.
A day will come when they will look back at this match and put it in the same bracket as Melbourne 2012, where Djokovic broke Nadal – and where they could barely stand through the presentation ceremony. On Sunday at Roland Garros, there were tears. Both players shed them, more because this was to be one of the most transformative experiences of their careers. It was also about victory and defeat, but as the cliché goes – they were there.
After the first set, the tennis deteriorated. They were tired, exhausted and almost falling over themselves between points. The intensity was still there, but there was no energy and strength to back it. It is no secret that their sapping styles of play eventually take a toll on their long-term physical conditions and result in injuries, but that is a price they chose to pay long ago – and the viewers aren’t complaining. Never has tennis been such a battle of spirit, gumption, guts and sheer human power before. If Rafael Nadal hadn’t managed to squeeze out the second set 7-5, it’d have been curtains for the 8-time Champion. The third set was a sorry affair to watch – there were errors everywhere and Djokovic, for the first time in years, couldn’t find physical energy to get through his final. Normally, he’d outNadal Nadal, and many expected him to do so this year, but somehow, Rafa Nadal pulled through and won his 9th French Open in 10 years.
In doing so, he became the first tennis player ever to win at least 1 Slam for 10 years in a row. He also won his 66th out of 67th matches in the French Open (1 loss to Soderling in 2009), and his fifth French Open in a row – the only male player ever to do so, beating Borg’s 4 in a row. What is remarkable about this achievement is that not many expected him to win in 2014, after a particularly ordinary claycourt season till Paris. This was a virtual repeat of 2012, where he came in low on confidence, and then swept everyone on his way to his 7th title.
Nadal also equalled Pete Sampras’ record of 14 Slams, and is only 3 behind Roger Federer in the list now. Not many will bet against him winning 3 more French Opens, let alone a few others. This is the season he could overtake Federer, in many fans’ eyes, as the greatest men’s tennis player that ever lived. That is subjective, and he has a long way to go – much like Tiger Woods is learning the hard way, still 4 behind Jack Nicklaus’ 18 Majors in Golf, for the last 5 years.
An injury could very well alter history, and Nadal is aware of it. He barely managed to posed with the trophy, still suffering from the onslaught, but did everything expected from a Champion. As he admitted later, you never know, this could be his last. It has been a while since Paris saw a 29 year old Champion, and Djokovic doesn’t have to wait too long.
But we said that last year too. And then, Rafa happened.