One For the Sages

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PARIS—Certain matches transcend our familiar definitions and labels, and we witnessed one of those today in the French Open men’s semifinals at Roland Garros. Defending champion Rafael Nadal survived the bludgeoning groundstrokes of Novak Djokovic in five sets, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 9-7.

“Epic” may sound not quite right, perhaps because it’s over-used, and implies a measure of predictability. “Classic” isn’t quite accurate, either. That word suggests order and elegance. Words like “barnburner” or “donnybrook” or even “war” smack of cliché. This one was unpredictable, un-orderly, sometimes inelegant, and none of that prevented it from being unforgettable as well as majestic.

The start for Djokovic was so slow that it seemed Nadal might run away with it in 90 minutes, but it developed into an almost surreal struggle played out on equal footing on a sere, windblown plain the color of dried blood—a battleground on which Nadal has rarely been vanquished. This was one for the ages—and one for the sages.

This bruising, bewitching battle fractured our sense of time, because few might have predicted it would last so long once it was underway. Djokovic unexpectedly popped to life after falling behind by a set and a break, and then experienced another, comparable resurgence following the third set, at exactly the point where he looked once again like that younger self who experienced puzzling losses of confidence and conditioning. By the time the compelling fifth set began, the only thing we knew for sure was that one way or another it would end—and end it did, but not before spilling over the customary boundaries of the scoreboard.

Afterward, Nadal would tick off some of his most memorable and satisfying moments and add, “This one is a special one. Is not the final; is a semifinals, so that makes a difference. But we if we talk about everything that makes a match big, today we had all of these ingredients.”

The match ate up four hours and 37 minutes—considerably less time than that five-hour and 53-minute “epic” these two men produced in Australia to start 2012, but it contained exactly the same number of games (55). Put some of the disparity down to the fact that since that clash in Melbourne, both the ITF and ATP have put a new emphasis on preventing time violations; in fact, each player was warned in today’s match, and upon his second violation Nadal was actually docked a point.

It was a busy day for tennis officialdom in general; Djokovic also summoned supervisor Stefan Franssonon on the changeover at 7-6 (in favor of Nadal), to ask that the court be watered because it had become too dry and slippery, especially with the significant breeze blowing away so much top-dressing. His plea fell on deaf ears, and he found himself looking on in dismay in the late stages of the fifth set as Nadal kept making remarkable retrieves to keep points alive—while also taking advantage of the court speed to fire gorgeous winners.

“I congratulate my opponent, because he showed the courage in the right moments and went for his shots,” Djokovic said when it was all over. “When he was break down in the fifth he made some incredible shots from the baseline. I congratulate him, because that’s why he’s a champion. That’s why he’s been ruling Roland Garros for many years, and for me. . . it’s another year.”

The men seemed to be feeling each other out through the first four games, but they popped to life in the fifth, producing the first of the many warp-speed rallies the helped define this match. The first break would happen two games later, when Nadal converted his third break point owing to a Djokovic rally-ending forehand error. It was all the break Nadal needed to run out the set, because Djokovic made too many unforced errors to keep pace with his rival.

In the second set, Nadal broke for 3-2. But Djokovic snapped and broke right back. His game suddenly improved—so much so that he held with relative ease, promptly breaking Nadal again for 5-3, and served out the set without making an unforced error in the final four games. “He had a fantastic half an hour to win the second,” Nadal said. “From 3-2 to 6-3 was just amazing the way that he played.”

But that outstanding run seemed to take something out of Djokovic, and it quickly became clear that he would be unable to keep his boot on Nadal’s throat—not on this day of peaks and volleys. After a quick Nadal hold to start the third set, errors began to melt off Djokovic’s strings and he was broken easily for 0-2. He took a bathroom break after Nadal held for 3-0, but never was competitive in the set again.

“These kind of matches are long, so is very difficult to play at one-hundred percent during the whole match, especially when two players are very close,” Nadal said. “If one player goes down a little bit, the opponent makes a difference. So yes, I was a little bit surprised. With the dynamic at the end of the second, he probably felt that he had an advantage. But it was completely the opposite, so probably mentally was a hard moment for him. But Djokovic always come back. That’s the real (true) thing.”

The proof of that was not long in coming. Nadal and Djokovic took it to another level after that three-set warm-up. The rallies were fast and furious, Nadal’s racquet in particular nothing but a blur when he unleashed that whiplash forehand. We began to see signs of a quality that would serve as the other bookend to match the courage animating Nadal’s offense; he resolutely ran down every blessed ball at which he had even a remote shot, and many at which he did not. The all-in attitude would pay great dividends in the fifth set, after Djokovic won the fourth-set tiebreaker with relative ease—but not before breaking Nadal while the seven-time champ served for the match at 6-5.

That fifth set went Djokovic’s way right off the bat, with a break of Nadal followed by a hold. The early break hung on Nadal’s neck like an albatross; next thing he knew he was down 2-4. “If you’re down 2-4, you have the impression that you’re going to lose,” he said. “But then you want to win the next point and then the following point. What you want is to come back into the match. If you can fight well, then anything is possible.”

It seems obvious, but that’s Nadal, the short version. He kept the faith and was rewarded with the break for 4-all, thanks to a cross-court backhand winner and an unreturnable forehand. From 4-all, Nadal had breathing room, and he ran down Djokovic blasts and powdered winners until he finally broke down the top seed in the final game.

“I don’t see many wrong things that I’ve done today, especially in the fifth set,” Djokovic said. “He hit some lines from unbelievable angles. And 3-1 in the fifth, when we played a long game, I had many opportunities. Other than that, he was serving really well. He was much more aggressive and he made some incredible shots.”

There was one more dimension worth noting in this unusually surprising match. Perhaps it helps explain what happened, albeit at an instinctual, gut level rather than through the offices of the mind. This was a match for those who don’t put much stock in the notion of fate, who believe that a man strong, bold, and adequately committed can actually cheat what appears to be pre-ordained.

Djokovic looked preternaturally calm and in absolute control of his emotions throughout, even during those intervals when his game seemed to be bound in shrink wrap. At the same time, Nadal often looked a little edgy, a mite weighed down and beleaguered. Even Nadal knows that he can’t go on winning Roland Garros forever; some day, his marvelous run will end. And at this tournament, Djokovic had already declared his intention to win in honor of the coach who developed his game but died last week, Jelena Gencic.

Those resurgences by Djokovic often made it seem that perhaps destiny was somehow at work, bearing him along toward a win that even the greatest clay-court player in the history of the game wouldn’t be able to prevent. We’ve seen these kinds of miracles before. But we wouldn’t see another one today.

This issue will be forgotten, and probably long before these two men meet again. There’s no real way to keep alive the mood or content of a particular moment, even an extended one. And you certainly can’t shoehorn it into the historical record, alongside all those serve and break-point conversion stats. But that doesn’t mean that those special circumstances and sensitivities weren’t at work, silently tugging at one or both men. If you believe even a little of that, your respect for Nadal must increase—if that’s possible.

His explanation for why he prevailed was considerably simpler. Nadal said, “When you love the game, you love what you are doing. You appreciate what you are doing in every moment. You know, I learned during all my career to enjoy suffering, and these kind of matches are very special.”

He might have added that such love is enough to overcome just about anything, even Novak Djokovic and the tug of fate.

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