The Hard Way

by: Steve Tignor | June 11, 2012

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RnPARIS—For the better part of four hours, in weather that had been unremittingly foul, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic had wrestled with nerves, errors, each other’s hard-nosed games, and a long-faced Roland Garros referee. Finally, at 5-5 in the fourth set, after another burst of light rain had brought the ref back on the court and nearly brought the two players off of it again, the sun had come out. For the first time in what seemed like weeks, the clay on Chatrier was back to its familiar bright orange. It felt like Roland Garros again.

Which means that it also felt like Rafael Nadal’s house again. Nadal has described the sun as “energy,” and midway through his service game at 5-5, he needed a surge of it himself. He had hit an ace to go up 30-0 in that game, but had watched as Djokovic had belted one of his customary leaping inside-out forehands past him to get back to 30-30. Djokovic was two points from serving for the set. It was hard to imagine Nadal, after being up two sets and being so close, turning the momentum around and winning a fifth.

It had been a match unlike any other I’d seen from Nadal. In each set, he had veered between confidence and anxiety. Despite his six titles here, his 10 majors, and his many wins over Djokovic in the past, Rafa grew hesitant with the lead. Nadal’s family and friends seemed to recognize that he needed a push to get him across this particular finish line, to beat the man who had beaten him in the last three Grand Slam finals, who had come back to steal the Australian Open from him in a fifth set. I’ve never seen the Nadal clan, all of them, so active in the stands. They stood and cheered when he walked toward to their corner before the first game, and they rarely stopped after that. They were out-Djokoviching the Djokovics.

Nadal admitted that he needed the help today. “This was a very complex final,” he said afterward, speaking specifically about the first two sets. “I had lost three Grand Slam finals in a row to him. That’s why it was important for me to win, and this was why I was a bit more nervous and there was a lot of emotions."

Nadal said that, after the match was called on Sunday, he had had a “hard night,” and had felt too anxious to play today until “three minutes before we went on court.”

Nadal had settled his nerves and played better in the fourth set; now it was 5-5, 30-30. The two players rallied, until Djokovic sent a forehand well over the baseline. You could almost see Nadal say to himself, “Not this time; there’s no reason not to take it this time.” At 40-30, he played as aggressively as he had all match. Nadal hit two full-throttle forehands and finished the point at the net, with a crosscourt drop volley. The nerves and the doubt, finally, had left him. At 6-5, Nadal didn’t give the lead back. He played another aggressive point at 30-30, finishing with a forehand winner to reach match point.

This was the moment when everyone, or at least every French fan who had watched Djokovic break their boy Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's heart in the quarterfinals, expected the Serb to jump out of his sneakers and fire a forehand winner. But the master of the match point never gave himself a chance to play Houdini. Instead, as he had against Rafa in Rome, Djokovic double-faulted.

I sympathized watching Nadal in defeat in Melbourne, and I felt the same for Djokovic today as he watched his last serve fly over the service line, dropped his head, and slumped toward the net. It was an unworthy way for his quest for four straight Slams to end. The timing made it doubly unfortunate. In each of this match’s two days, Djokovic had started slowly and dug himself out of a hole, only to be cut short at the end. On Sunday he had won eight straight games before being pulled off because of bad weather. Today, with a tiebreaker and a fifth set in sight, he had pulled the plug on himself.

Djokovic said that the overnight break had hurt him, but he refused to make it an excuse. “I was ready to continue on and play last night,” he said, “but they decided to stop because the weather conditions were not good. I was OK with that. I’m not going back and saying, ‘OK, it’s your fault because I lost.’”

Listening to Djokovic before and after this match, and watching the way he played it, I had the feeling that it was a sort of test run in his mind. Djokovic emphasized beforehand that it would be his first French final against the all-time champ here, and that it was “the ultimate challenge.” He was unsure of himself at the start of the match, as if he had read one too many of Rafa’s rave reviews. Finally, in a business-like post-match presser, he said, “I lost this time. But I believe that there are still many years to come, and I hopefully I can come back stronger.”

NdNole echoed this sentiment in the most moving moment from his post-match speech. When he was done thanking his team, and he had had enough of trying to speak in French, he came back to English with these words, sincere in their simplicity: “It was a privilege to play in my first Roland Garros final.”

Even Novak’s father, the excitable Srdjan—after a long absence, he returned this week as combative as ever—seemed to make the best of it. As Djokovic and Nadal embraced at the net, Daddy Djoker slapped five with his wife and other members of their group. The last year had been a good ride.

When Nadal heard Djokovic’s final serve called out, he turned to his family and put his hands to his face. It was as emotional as he'd been after a win since the 2008 Wimbledon final. From what I can remember, it’s also the first time he’s climbed into the stands since that match. Nadal called it the “most special moment” of his career, and said the relief was extreme because he felt like he'd "been playing the match since Friday afternoon." Where Wimbledon 2008 was emotional because of where he had won, this one was emotional because of who he had beaten. Later, Nadal described the journey he had taken to get to this point against Novak.

“After the U.S. Open, when I said, ‘I know what I have to do to win, of course I knew,’” Nadal said, referring to his words of determination after he lost the final to Djokovic in New York. “Now the question was: Am I capable of doing that? There is theory and there is what you do. In Australia, I could have won, but . . . I was not in the best mental status. Now I’m here, I made it, I did everything I could do to win this match. For me, it’s great emotion.”

Nadal hugged his father, his mother, and his sister. He hugged his manager and his uncle Miguel Angel and his girlfriend and his traveling buddies. Finally he came to his other uncle, Toni. Their relationship has been much scrutinized over the years, and Toni’s unforgiving ways with his nephew have been criticized. At this tournament, Nadal defended Toni, saying that he wouldn’t be where he is today without him. And it’s true, while Rafa is famous for his mental endurance, it was Toni’s stoical teachings that inspired that stamina. Asked a few days ago how often he fishes—it’s a favorite avocation of Rafa’s—Nadal said that he’d like to do it in the mornings, except that he has to practice. "My uncle," he said with a smile, "wouldn’t be happy” if he skipped morning practice to go fishing.

Toni spun and danced and cried after the last point. When Rafa got to his uncle, he jumped into his arms. There were a lot of emotions, Nadal said, and love was one of them. And love, as they both knew, can be tough. Toni, whether it was having his nephew play with beat-up tennis balls as a kid, or helping him chase down Novak Djokovic this year, always made Rafa walk the hard road. Today was a day to celebrate how far it had taken them.

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