There's nothing like Paris in the springtime, they say. As these 10 epics—the 10 most memorable French Open matches of the Open Era—show, there's also nothing quite as stirring or sensation as tennis in Paris at this time of year.
“You need to love the game.” That's what an exhausted, exhilarated Nadal said on June 7, 2013, when he was asked what it took to win a match like the one he had just played. On that hot day in Paris, it had taken every bit of love, and effort—and “suffering,” as Rafa likes to put it—that he could muster.
In the annals of the career-long, 50-match tug-of-war between Nadal and Djokovic, their 2013 French Open semifinal might be called the Second Epic. It was the mirror image of their Australian Open final from the previous year. That see-saw saga in Melbourne lasted five hours and 53 minutes, and went to Djokovic 7-5 in the fifth set. This see-saw saga lasted four hours and 37 minutes and went to Nadal 9-7 in the fifth set. Each match featured merciless rallies, brilliant shot-making, and one now-legendary, match-changing blunder. Nadal himself recognized the parallel.
“I lost a match like this in Australia,” he said in Paris. “This one was for me.”
It was for Rafa, but it was for all tennis fans as well. Since Nadal began his run of domination in Paris in 2005, there have been precious men’s epics in the later rounds at Roland Garros. Rafa, who otherwise has never been taken to five sets in a semifinal or a final there, has been too good to let anyone get close. Except Djokovic. Back in 2006, when he was 19, the Serb claimed that Nadal was “beatable” at the French Open. This match was his fifth attempt to prove himself right, and the closest he would come until he finally knocked Rafa out of Roland Garros in 2015.
Stories of the Open Era - Rafael Nadal, King of Clay:
You know a match is a good one when neither player can fathom the shots that his opponent is pulling off. Nadal and Djokovic spent a fair amount of these four and a half hours shaking their heads and smiling in disbelief at their rival’s preposterous play. Nadal couldn’t believe Djokovic’s lunging, line-licking returns or his above-the-shoulder tomahawk forehand winners. As for Novak, he looked for help from his coaches whenever Rafa dug one more impossible get out of the clay, or hooked another forehand down the line on the dead run. Alas, there was no help for either player.
At the Australian Open in 2012, it had been Nadal who had survived a near-death experience in the fourth set, won it in a tiebreaker, and taken a 4-2 lead in the fifth before watching Djokovic storm back for the title. In Paris it was Nole who grabbed the fourth set in a tiebreaker, and led 4-2 in the fifth before watching Nadal take it all away.
Each time, the loser was haunted by a stunning, crucial lapse. In Australia, with a chance to go up 5-2 in the fifth, Nadal missed the easiest of backhand passing shots. In Paris, serving at 4-3 in the final set, two games from victory and a chance at his first French title, Djokovic gave away a point at deuce when he ran into the net after hitting what would have been a winning overhead.
Despite that mistake, this match reached its dramatic peak over the last few games, as each man fought desperately to survive. Djokovic swung with everything he had, while Nadal sprinted farther than he ever had on the clay in Paris to track balls down. As they pushed each their way higher and higher into the tennis stratosphere, Rafa and Nole were like another pair of Parisian artists, from another age. One hundred years earlier, Picasso and Braque had described themselves as “two mountain climbers, roped together,” scaling the heights of painting. Nadal and Djokovic were their tennis equivalent in 2013. At Roland Garros that year, they led each other to a summit.
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*Matches subject to change