washingtonpost And when Novak Djokovic surrendered the final point, a double-fault that sealed Nadal’s 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 victory, the Spaniard crumpled to his knees with nothing left to give but tears.
Nadal, 28, expended all on Court Philippe Chatrier in pursuit of his ninth French trophy — a victory that solidified his hold on the world No. 1 ranking and ties him with Pete Sampras for second on the list of all-time Grand Slam titles. Only Roger Federer’s 17 eclipse the 14 majors that Nadal now shares with Sampras.
Djokovic, the world No. 2, was no less sapped by the three hour, 30-minute slugfest. The Serbian got sick to his stomach between the third and fourth sets, so drained by conditions, the mental strain of trying to expose a weakness in Nadal and the pummeling of the Spaniard’s topspin blasts.
And when each was given a chance to speak during the on-court ceremony following their 42nd career meeting, in which Nadal now holds a 23-19 advantage, he opened with praise for the other.
“I am sorry for today, but for me is always a challenge to play against you,” Nadal told Djokovic, who was seeking the one major title he lacked toward a career Grand Slam, having already won Wimbledon, the Australian and U.S. opens. “I’m sure you will win here in the future, I don’t have any doubt about that.”
Said Djokovic, whose eyes were red, as well, after being acknowledged with a standing ovation and extended cheers from the crowd: “I gave my best. All my strength. All my capability and effort. But Rafa was the best today.”
It is among the more daunting records in tennis, Nadal’s near perfection at Roland Garros, where his record stands at 66-1. Even more daunting is his 88-1 record in five-set matches on clay.
From Djokovic’s perspective, that meant he had to strike quickly to have a chance Sunday.
The Serb did just that, firing his forehands deep into the court, with little margin of error. He also used the drop shot to great effect, luring Nadal to the net, then torching him with cross-court winners.
Nadal was more cautious and less accurate at the outset, missing routine groundstrokes off both wings. He was broken in the eighth game and then lost the set — just the second set he’d conceded all tournament.
The players traded breaks midway through a tense second set, with each paying dearly for even a moment’s lapse in concentration. Facing a must-hold service game at 5-6, Djokovic committed a wild forehand error, and Nadal got the break that evened the match at one set apiece.
Djokovic looked spent entering the third set, undone by a 22-shot rally he ended by shoveling a tired backhand into the net. Soon after, Nadal led two sets to one.
Though the temperature was roughly 80 degrees, the humidity was a jolt for the athletes after two weeks of fall-like cool. The heat favored Nadal, accentuating the high bounce of his topspin strokes.
But each new set represents a fresh start. And each started the fourth with a fresh shirt, a symbolic reminder.
“It’s not impossible, but it’s very, very difficult to stay with Rafa in this court, throughout the whole match, on the highest level of performance,” Djokovic, 27, explained later. “It’s normal that you have ups and downs.”
But Djokovic simply couldn’t summon the energy required for a fourth-set turnaround. Nadal was struggling physically, too, admitting later to losing his sense of coordination on his serve and forehand in the waning minutes of the match. Later, his left arm cramped up during the trophy ceremony.
As a competitor, Nadal plays more by feel than tactics. And as analyst of his matches, he reflects through a prism of emotion rather than statistics.
Still, the litany of statistics related to his latest achievement was tossed at him during his post-match interview: How did it feel to be the first man in history to win five consecutive French Opens? The first man to win one Grand Slam title each year for 10 consecutive years?
“We will see when we finish my career how many Grand Slams I have or if I win four, three or five in a row,” said Nadal. “Today, that is not the important thing.
“ . . . You want to enjoy the moment. You feel your emotions when you are there and you did it, because you know how much you worked to be there. But at the same time, that’s not forever. You have a few more opportunities, yes. But you don’t know if you’re gonna win it again.”