Court Philippe Chatrier, the centre court at Roland Garros, has witnessed several intriguing and mind-boggling stories of champion players displaying their craftsmanship. But none of those champions has been as special as the King of Clay, Rafael Nadal.
Nadal’s impeccable numbers on the Parisian clay are staggering, and the fans keep turning up in huge numbers year after year to support their beloved hero and role model. In return the Spaniard lives up to their expectations, repaying their faith in him almost every time he plays on the red dirt of Paris - he has won the French Open 11 times so far.
En route those titles he has had to withstand fierce competition from several players, but one man who has constantly troubled Nadal is none other than current World No. 1 Novak Djokovic. Djokovic remains one of only two players to have ever defeated Nadal at the French Open, and the rivalry between the two on the red clay of Paris has been closer than what the results suggest.
The rivalry reached its peak when Nadal and Djokovic squared off against each other in the semi-finals of the 2013 Roland Garros. It was an epic battle of skill and stamina that will go down in folklore as one of the greatest matches ever played.
Nadal had stormed into the semi-finals on the back of a fabulous clay season where he had won three consecutive titles at Barcelona, Madrid and Rome. But Djokovic’s presence at the other side of the net was always going to make Nadal uncomfortable; his only defeat in the 2013 European clay season up to that point had come at the hands of the Serb, at the Monte Carlo Masters.
On the other hand, Djokovic’s progress in the clay season had taken a serious dip following his win at Monte Carlo. But he was desperate to turn the tide and get the better of the Spaniard in the semi-finals so as to avenge the loss he had suffered in the previous year's Roland Garros final.
First set, Nadal 6-4
In the first set, there were a few tight holds from both players at the start. But it was Nadal who drew first blood as he broke Djokovic’s serve in the 7th game with a blistering array of groundstrokes.
That one break of serve turned out to be decisive as the then seven-time champion clinched the first set 6-4.
Second set, Djokovic 6-3
Nadal was up and running and he pushed Djokovic to his limits at the beginning of the second set too. The consistent pressure from Nadal earned him a break lead at the start, but that was when Djokovic decided to amp up the aggression and hit back.
He got back on level terms and then broke again to snatch the set from Nadal 6-3. The match was well and truly 'on' now.
Third set, Nadal 6-1
The third set was like a dream for Nadal, as he showed everyone who was the claycourt boss. At one point, Djokovic was 0-5, 15-40 down in the third set; he narrowly escaped the embarrassment of being served a bagel by his biggest rival.
Eventually, Nadal won the third set 6-1 and moved to within touching distance of making it a staggering 8th Roland Garros final appearance.
Fourth set, Djokovic 7-6 (7-3)
In what was a see-saw battle in the fourth set, Djokovic regrouped after being broken twice. He broke Nadal the same number of times to push the set into a tie-breaker.
It was predominantly one-way traffic there as Djokovic rose to the occasion to win the set 7-6 (7-3), forcing the match into the deciding final set.
Fifth set, Nadal 9-7
Such had been the dominance of the ‘King of Clay’ in Paris that playing a fifth set at Roland Garros in itself was a rarity for him - this was only the second time it had ever happened.
For Djokovic, it was a golden opportunity to beat Nadal and take a significant step towards winning his first ever French Open title.
A weak opening service game from Nadal coupled with some exquisite returns and fabulous shots from the Serb meant that Djokovic broke Nadal right at the start of the set to put himself in a commanding position.
A couple of games into the final set it was evident that the intensity of both the players had gone a notch higher; they were now painting the lines with magnificent strokes and finding razor sharp angles, not only bamboozling their opponent but also leaving the fans in awe.
Leading 4-3, in an attempt to dismiss a weak lob from Nadal, Djokovic crashed into the net before the ball bounced twice, thereby giving the seven-time champion a break point. Even though Nadal wasn’t able to capitalize immediately, he eventually secured the break back to once again leave the set on a knife’s edge at 4-4.
After that break Nadal reached divine mode, and looked simply unstoppable. Djokovic used every trick, every shot in his armoury to get the win, but everything he tried was in vain.
Some of Nadal’s forehands in the later stages of the fifth and final set were so picturesque that they left Djokovic in disbelief.
After all the drama and entertainment, after 4 hours and 37 minutes, Nadal had three match points; he was on the cusp of entering his 8th French Open final. A forehand from Djokovic went long to hand the King of Clay a hard-fought win, and the crowd rose in admiration to applaud their hero who had to go through the sternest of tests to emerge victorious.
Unconquerable and unstoppable, Nadal had lived on to play yet another final at Roland Garros, adding a new chapter to his legacy and registering a season-defining victory over his biggest rival.
While Nadal marched on to win an unprecedented 8th title on the red clay of Paris, defeating his compatriot David Ferrer in the summit clash, for Djokovic the French Open puzzle remained unsolved. He promised to try even harder the next time he played on Parisian clay, and he would eventually get his win over Nadal, in the 2015 edition.Published 02 May 2019, 20:15 IST