I was sincerely hoping for a fifth set. I bet so were all the Parisians who turned up on Monday for Part-2 of the final. But Novak Djokovic’s strong desire to win the Novak Slam was not as strong as Rafael Nadal’s will to claim his favourite title. The only pity was that the end was so tame.
This was without any doubt, the toughest match Rafael Nadal has played in the French Open final. Yes, he has been taken to four sets by Federer thrice, even by Mariano Puerta in 2004. But none of them were as challenging as this one.
For one thing, Roger never gets on top of Rafa like Novak does – it’s clay after all. Also, Federer’s wins over Nadal have all come when he has been able to establish his pace and position on court, especially of his back-hand. But Novak doesn’t do just that when he is on top. He gets to that position by out-Nadal‘ing’ Nadal. Since early 2011, the sobriquet of the “Golden Retriever” has been passed on to the Serb. And being beaten at his own game was precisely what hurt Nadal more than the losses themselves. It wasn’t like Novak discovered a flaw in Rafa’s game which he was able to exploit. It was just that Novak became better at what Rafa was the best at to begin with.
Any other player might’ve wilted. For a moment it seemed so would Rafa. But the Spaniard managed to stay put. He changed his game a bit, improved a bit more, started hugging the baseline as much as possible during the rallies, tried to get more returns on his own serve, and importantly, started executing these tactics earlier in the tournaments to give himself the necessary practice before the crunch matches.
We saw him do this in Monte-Carlo. He defeated Djokovic there. The win, given Djokovic’s situation might not have meant much, but was a win nevertheless. For good measure, he snapped up Barcelona, gaining more and more momentum. Madrid was a bit “out of the blue” and no one believed it meant anything. Then in Rome, where both players were at their near best, those slight changes finally paid their first rich dividends. Straight sets victory for Rafa over Novak, giving him the much needed confidence, something he was lacking last year going into where all this was culminating, at Paris.
Djokovic has stated several times this year that the French Open is his primary focus. He played only the three Masters 1000 events in the build up for it and gave himself plenty of time to prepare for the tough physical challenge that Paris would bring. He reached the final, taking out Federer en route. Eventually, he fell two sets short of his target, but not before posing to Rafa his toughest challenge. They say the French Open is one of the toughest slams to win, a tough grind which many are unable to withstand. Rafael Nadal is alone at the top with seven.
Time for an extended grass court season now!