Rafael Nadal is now a nine-time champion at Roland Garros. No other man has won a Grand Slam that many times. But for one day in 2009, Nadal would be gunning for an 11th consecutive title next year in Paris. His win tied Pete Sampras for joint second (14) on the all-time list of most Grand Slam titles, and marked the tenth consecutive season in which he's showered himself in Grand Slam glory. In short, yesterday's win was historic. It must have been the awareness of that history that made the moment that much more emotional for Nadal; he cried like he's never done before on a tennis court. After coming so close in Australia, only to have his body betray him, Nadal looked like a man who had just shed a weight that us mere mortals will never know.
The 42nd meeting between Nadal and Djokovic had all the makings of another classic. What we got, instead, was a bizarre match with neither player at his best. Djokovic claimed the first set 6-3, but at no point afterwards did he look assured of winning the match. His play was uncertain and laden with uncharacteristic errors. Even his trademark return game was a shadow of its usual self, as Nadal won 50% of his 2nd serve points compared to 36% for Djokovic. This was not the man who most pundits, with good reason, picked to hoist the trophy at tournament's end.
Yet, even though Djokovic was clearly not at his optimum level yesterday, he still found himself one service game away from a second set tie-break and a chance at a two sets to love lead. The second set was where the match was won/lost. At the time, I thought Nadal had to pull even in order to have a chance at winning, but it turned out to be Djokovic who had to take a 2-0 lead. While he looked subdued, we had no idea how much he would struggle physically in the third set and beyond. His typically frugal ground game gifted Nadal an unusual number of unforced errors. Even when he attempted to serve and volley more, he missed easy volleys that gave Nadal more breathing room. This was most glaring when Djokovic dumped a backhand volley into the net to lose the second set.
Djokovic is undeniably one of the best ever, but seems destined to remain in the shadows of Nadal and Federer. Most troubling for Novak is a trend of being unable to bring his best to Nadal in the biggest matches. Yes, he was let down by his body in this match, but there is now an undeniable mental component to his inability to beat Nadal on the biggest stages. This was the third straight and sixth overall loss to Nadal at Roland Garros, this after looking in complete control during their last four ATP matches. Consider too that Djokovic was unable to win the 2013 U.S. Open final, another match in which he was favoured, and we're beginning to see a pattern.
Rafael Nadal is the "King of Clay". Losing yesterday's match would not have changed that. But, Nadal still had everything to play for. The 2014 season has not been kind to Rafa, in spite of reaching the Australian Open final and winning three tournaments. His expected bulldozing of the clay season did not happen. He suffered losses to Almagro, Ferrer, and Djokovic on clay, and he carried the weight of the disappointment in Australia with him. Whereas in previous seasons Nadal arrived in Paris the prohibitive favourite, his baggage was much heavier in 2014. Moreover, tennis fans saw a different Rafa this spring, more reflective and willing to indulge his existential sensibilities in press conferences; he did not equivocate when confronted about his dip in form. Yet, even with all his struggles, Nadal appeared committed to the hard work he knew he had to do in order to defend in Paris.
The French Open was always his end goal. We will never know how much the tournament means to Nadal. We think of Rafa as a mythical creature whose unprecedented reign on the red dirt is taken for granted. The truth is, fans will never know any of what it takes to be Rafael Nadal, and so it was hard for them to understand why their saviour was suddenly so vulnerable, having to fight himself, his body, and his mind. The weight of expectations - coupled with the physical and emotional toll of this most difficult season - was on full display after Djokovic double faulted on match point.
All that Nadal kept close to his chest for the last few months came gushing out on Philippe Chatrier. He cried like we have never seen before. Once he grabbed hold of the Coupe des Mousquetaires and the Spanish national anthem started playing, Nadal was overcome. Those were not just happy tears, they were relieved tears - the relief of knowing that all the hard work paid off. We expect our warriors to be steely and brave in battle. We must also admire them for embracing emotion and not being afraid for us to see them cry. For as much as we are invested in tennis players as fans, they are the ones who feel the highs and lows of victory and defeat most intensely. Nadal and Djokovic showed us just how much they both care on that podium.
If we take one thing away from this French Open, it should be to never underestimate the will of Rafael Nadal Parera. The King leaves Paris with his number one ranking intact and assured of at least one more year on the French throne.