PARIS—Look at him, toweling off during a brief respite between points late in the second set. His powder blue shirt sticks to the perspiration on his back, face buried in the towel, wet black hair hanging in tentacles. His shoulders are scrunched up, and he’s hunched over very nearly into a right angle, as if he can’t quite catch his breath, or he fears he’s going to vomit from the exertion and the anxiety.
He looks like an old man, an old man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, and that’s alright because that weight is there. It’s tough to be king. Some of your subjects demand your abdication. Princes conspire against you, recruiting agents from foreign climes to help plan your demise. Armies are massed on dark shores, prepared to take what you have and impale your head on a stake. It’s tough to be king, alright, even if your kingdom is merely made of red clay, as is the kingdom of Rafael Nadal.
Today, Nadal extended his extraordinary reign at the French Open with a convincing dismissal of the man who would be king, Novak Djokovic. Playing with a beautifully modulated combination of reckless abandon alternating with crafty prudence, Nadal clinched his record ninth title at Roland Garros, frustrating and finally turning back Djokovic’s bid to dethrone the King of Clay, 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4.
“I know to play against him I need to play to my limit, I need to play aggressive,” Nadal said afterward. "But to play aggressive you need to be with confidence, you need to feel the ball. Sometimes you don't have that great feeling. I felt that the match was more in his hands at the beginning than in my hands. I was winning more points from his mistakes than from my winners, and I need to change that. I think in the second set that the dynamic of the match changed. I was able to play more aggressive. I did better things.”
Better things indeed. After that slow start, and with both men suffering from the unexpectedly sultry weather, Nadal was able to assert his natural clay-court authority. In that he was aided immeasurably by this particular court, Court Philippe Chatrier, which is nothing less than his castle.
As Djokovic said: “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. It's normal that you have ups and downs. I was just hoping that in the fourth I would be able to come back. I started feeling, as I said, a little bit better, but I wasn't managing to, you know, bring my A-game when it was most needed.”
The match began in bright sunlight and pleasant early summer heat—a much-discussed advantage for Nadal. But there were signs early on that either Nadal’s blood wasn’t flowing as freely as it ought to have, or he was just plain nervous. Unfortunately for Nadal, that other much-discussed issue—his forehand that has misbehaved a bit this spring—further complicated matters.
Djokovic went to work on that forehand, as if hadn’t read all those reports in which Nadal had pronounced the shot fixed following that chilling destruction of Andy Murray in the semifinals. The errors were one thing, but the way Djokovic was able to open up the court and then exploit the angles was also a worry for Nadal.
Whomever decided that the forehand might still be Nadal’s soft underbelly was probably all puffed up with pride when Djokovic broke Nadal for 5-3 in the first set. The first two points of that game were badly executed inside-out forehand errors by Nadal. He managed to get back into the game, but he would provide Djokovic with three break points, the last of which Nadal was unable to save thanks to another inside-out forehand error.
Djokovic served out the first set, and he seemed to have matters under control through five games of the second set. But one of Djokovic’s fatal flaws in matches with Nadal is the difficultly he has sustaining the admittedly stunning level to which he sometimes takes his game. Furthermore, he doesn’t always play that elusive A-game when he most needs it.
Midway through the second set, Nadal’s forehand was improving with leaps and bounds, perhaps from all the work it was getting. That was a bad sign for Djokovic, and it led to a break that gave Nadal a 4-2 lead. Djokovic dug in his heels and broke back, taking the momentum with him.
But with Djokovic starting to experience a loss in energy, Nadal was able to do what he does best: Grind away at a high level until he created an opening. The payoff came in the 12th game, which began with a Djokovic double-fault. Nadal won the next three points, two with forehand winners, to deny Djokovic the refuge of a tiebreaker.
“Even if I was 4-all, the real thing was that the match really changed before. So that was a positive thing. For sure the day of today was very tough, very humid. The combination of two weeks of cold with the drastic change of yesterday and today, so today was the first real day that we play with that conditions. This big change I think affects us, affects our physical performance. After the one set and a half we were a little bit tired today.”
To my mind, the turning point in this match was a well-disguised one—the seventh game of the third set. By then, Nadal had a break in hand and led 4-2. But in that next game, Djokovic recovered from a 40-15 deficit (Nadal serving) and reached deuce with a terrific serve return and an ominous inside-out forehand error by Nadal. There were five deuces to come, but only one break point for Djokovic (Nadal won it with a neat, short backhand slice winner). Nadal went on to hold the long game, and the 5-2 lead might have looked to Djokovic like 52-2. He immediately capitulated, surrendering his serve yet again.
“I started playing quite bad,” Djokovic said of the third set. “I didn't move as well. I struggled a little bit physically throughout that third set. Then in the fourth started to feel a little bit better, but then just crucial points. . . he played better. I wasn't playing at the level that I wanted, especially in the second part of the match. You know, that's sport. It's how it is.”
Djokovic had one hurrah left. Nadal punched through with a break for 4-2 in the fourth set, but his rival began to shake off his lethargy just as Rafa, with the end in sight, seemed to get rattled. Djokovic broke him for 4-3 and looked like a man reborn, ready to go five sets once again.
But it didn’t happen. Down 4-5, he built a 30-love lead, but two errors sandwiched around a Nadal cross-court backhand pass brought up match point. Djokovic double-faulted, and that was that.
This may not have been the best match in what has already become the best rivalry in the history of the Open era. It was the 42nd meeting between the men, and Nadal leads 23-19. He won today despite losing to Djokovic the last four times they’ve met—but Nadal has now won their last four Grand Slam meetings, as well as each of their six clashes at Roland Garros.
Both men cried, albeit for different reasons, after this match. “There are many emotions,” Nadal said, admitting that it was very difficult for him to take the loss to Stan Wawrinka in the Australian Open a few months ago. “Of course I can always accept a loss, but a loss is something that travels with you during this long journey, you see, during our long careers.
“There are weeks sometimes, you know, when one has the feeling that one is losing more matches than winning matches; therefore, a loss is some type of company which lingers, if I can say. But then I knew I was well prepared. I was ready. I played well. Even though I was missing some energy for a few months, I was so motivated. I had a lot of energy within me, and this helped considerably.”
Djokovic sometimes seems like Nadal’s foil, or an agent sent to confirm that it is indeed impossible to beat Rafa at Roland Garros. The 28-year old Spaniard has now won the French Open nine times; no other man has won a single major that often. And by winning here, he’s dead even with Pete Sampras at 14 Grand Slam titles. The crowd seemed to be aware of all this, for they gave Djokovic such a rousing and prolonged standing ovation that before they finished, the Serb had tears standing in his eye.
“It was fantastic,” he said of that moment. “I am so grateful for the opportunity to play here. Of course it's right after you go off the court and you want this title so much and you don't win it for several years now, and it's disappointing. But it’s not the first time that I have this particular experience. . . So to be able to also be appreciated by the fans the way I was in the end of the match just gives me more strength and motivation to come back here and try till the end of my career—hopefully to get at least a title.”
Well, Nadal may have something to say about those plans, at least for the next few years. But he’s aware of Djokovic’s plight and during the trophy presentation he more or less apologized—and there was nothing phony about it—to his rival for having ruined his dream again.
Like I said, it’s tough to be the king.