Commanding the Sun

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PARIS—Immediately after Rafael Nadal roughed up Andy Murray in back end of the French Open semifinals, the crowd spontaneously began to chant and clap in unison: “Ra-Fa,” clap-clap-clap. . . “Ra-Fa,” clap-clap-clap. And moments later, when Fabrice Santoro asked Rafa the first of his questions on an open mike for the entire stadium to hear, he chose to answer the question in French.

That decision provided no new fodder for the International Quotation Hall of Fame, as Nadal’s French is about like that of a sincere tourist. But that hardly mattered. It actually seemed like the French, having witnessed Nadal carry off the Roland Garros title eight times, are finally beginning to take him to their bosom. Better late than never, right?

Then again, how could anyone not stand in awe of Nadal after his astonishing deconstruction of Murray in a mere hour and 42 minutes? Nadal won, 6-3, 6-2, 6-1, and it was even more lopsided than the scores would indicate. Murray, one of the game’s great returners, didn’t push Nadal to deuce until the penultimate game of the match. In fact, Murray won all of 10 points against Nadal’s serve.

What Murray said about the power of Nadal’s serve could almost be extrapolated and applied across the board in one way or another to every dimension in this match:

“He served well and I didn't return well. Simple. He served very close to the lines. Ball was coming through the court quicker today. My timing was off on the returns. It’s easy to just sort of say, ‘Oh, you know, he served well and I missed quite a lot of returns.’ But the problem is if you don't do anything with the return, he was just battering the next ball into the corner. So you need to try and do something with his return. Maybe I was going for a bit too much. Then when I missed a couple in a row I would get a bit tentative.”

In other words, Murray got all turned around and tangled up and confused on a day when Nadal could do no wrong.

As the winner said, “I think I played very well with my forehand. I think was important to serve the way that I served today. Is true that for a player like Andy—he’s a big returner—that he make more mistakes than usual on the return. But is true too that I made a lot of times serve, and the first shot with my forehand starts to be very positive because I am able to take the advantage from the first shot.”

Nadal and his camp had been telling us for days that whatever was—or wasn’t—happening during his matches, he was having some of the best practices of his life. And today he took pains to point out that he finally hit the same level in a match as he’d been achieving in practice. That spelled bad news for Murray, particularly in light of the conditions today.

Coming into this match, Murray had spent the most time on court among all four semifinalists, putting in 14 hours and 46 minutes over five matches. But a lot of that time was spent dickering around, allowing a number of matches to go on much longer than they might have, like a clock-punching employee trying to squeeze a couple of extra hours onto the pay stub.

Nadal had spent four hours and 34 minutes less than Murray en route to the semis, but it was uncertain what effect—if any—this would have on the match. It turned out to be plenty.

Nadal kept Murray from loosening up, and he hit the ball so crisply, and so close to the line, that the Scot constantly found himself unable to get into points. When asked about all those physically and emotionally draining minutes Murray wasted on the likes of Gael Monfils, he answered:

“I don't know, to be honest. If it was, I've only got myself to blame, because I was in control of a lot of the matches that went longer than maybe they should have been. But, yeah, ideally playing against [Nadal] on this surface, the way he's hitting the ball today, you have to do a lot of running, chase a lot of balls down. I couldn't get enough back.”

But in truth, Murray is an elite player and Grand Slam champion, one of those men who is capable of superhuman effort and feats of stamina. His inability to keep up with Nadal’s pace had less to do with rubbery legs than the way the conditions added just one more advantage on Nadal’s side of the ledger.

It was clear, dry, sunny, and almost summertime-hot at Roland Garros today. And by now you know what that means when it comes to Nadal’s game.

“His forehand, especially with the conditions the way they were today, was incredibly hard to control,” Murray said. “His shot was bouncing incredibly high. It was very difficult to do much with the ball.”

The conditions will almost certainly have a role in shaping the dream final between Nadal and Novak Djokovic on Sunday. I have no doubt that Nadal had no intention of sending Djokovic a message with this performance, but at the same time I’m sure he’ll feel very gratified that he found his best game at the most important stage of this this event so far, and under the conditions most favorable to his style of play.

“It's obvious that with days like today, helps my game,” Nadal said. “But this is something beyond my control. I have to do my best with the weather, whatever the weather will be. I said it on many occasions I prefer when the weather is fine and sunny. But I can't command the sun.”

Yet let’s face it, this rivalry now is played out beyond the realm of the Xs and Os. Sunday will be about tennis, but it will be tennis shaped and colored by critical, metaphysical questions of confidence, determination, fear, and desire.

Nadal has already yielded the high ground on “confidence,” declaring: “Confident or not on Sunday doesn't matter. I gonna go on court. I'm going to try my best. I need to play aggressive. I need to find my best level, and I gonna try.”

You may have noticed that Nadal is often at his most dangerous when he’s in this self-effacing mode. But it’s also silly to discount the four-match winning streak Djokovic has going against Nadal, and the obvious fact that the challenger, the man looking to complete his career Grand Slam as well as win his first title at Roland Garros, is more hunter than hunted—just as Nadal was in his rivalry with Roger Federer.

When someone asked Nadal if Djokovic’s desire to complete his twin mission here made him more or less dangerous, Nadal laid his cards on the table.

“Novak already did a lot times positive results here. Is nothing new for him to be in the final,” he charitably reminded his interlocutor. “He has the motivation to win Roland Garros for the first time for sure. But at the same time, he has the pressure to win for the first time. I have the pressure that I want to win, and the motivation that I want to win the ninth. So I don't see a big difference on that.”

If that wasn’t a shot fired across the bow of the good ship Djokovic, why do I smell cordite in the air?

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