Rafael Nadal's tryst with Roland Garros
Rafael Nadal is so clinged to Roland Garros that the very thought that one can outdo him at the red clay in Paris almost become an absurdly optimistic wish. Since the day Nadal stepped onto the Le Stade Roland Garros, that goes back to 2005, the Spaniard conceded only single loss in his 10 tournament appearances.
A Single Loss. In Ten Years.
What aggrandize Nadal's extra-ordinary success at Paris Clay, is that he did all this, achieving 9 French Open titles in a span of a decade, when two of the current era's greatest players were at their peak: Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
Nadal denied Federer a chance to complete his Career Slam
Federer had to wait until long to earn his first Clay Slam. The Swiss was having the best career run the tennis world has ever seen. After winning his first Grand Slam at Wimbledon in 2003, Federer went on a spree to collect 5 Wimbledon titles (2003-07), 5 US Open Titles (2004-08) and 4 Australian Open Titles (2004-07) in the next 5 years. But amidst all this prosperity, French Open continued to allude him.
It was not like the Pete Sampras story: Pete, an exceptional grass-court player and 14-time Major Champion, never reached the final of the French Open. Federer, on the other hand, however very close to Pete in terms of playing style, was more complete than the American. Federer reached the final at the French Open for 3 consecutive years, from 2006 to 2008. Yet, he failed to cross the ultimate hurdle. The Hurdle named Rafael Nadal.
It would not have taken Federer this long to emphasize the claim that he is the Greatest of All Time, if not for French Open. Each passing year, the narrative traced the same thread again: Federer coming into French Open in his prime to somehow find a way around Nadal, but Nadal invariably turning out to be far more superior than his Swiss alter-ego.
It was only in 2009, 4th time lucky, that Federer found a way around Nadal. Literally. Robin Soderling, an unlikly figure to best Nadal at a court which was tailored-made for him, gave Federer a shining opportunity to win the French Open without locking horns against the Spanish Bull in the final. And Federer, obligingly, took it.
2009. The list of Nadal's failed forays in Paris ends here.
(Novak Djokovic must be looking to extend that list.)
Djokovic's fate is not anymore different than Federer's. Since 2011, when Djokovic began to dominate the sport, Roland Garros proved to be just too far from the reach. Like Federer, Djokovic is struggling to find a way around Nadal -- both metaphorically and literally. Like Federer, Roland Garros averts the Serb from completing Career Slam. Like Federer, the time is running out for Djokovic.
But at least one factor positively separates the Serb from the Swiss. Djokovic, unlike Federer, has defeated Nadal (and proved to be an uphill task) at the major clay events. Only last year, at the Rome Masters, did Djokovic defeat Nadal in the final. But when it comes to French Open, Nadal relentlessly proves to be infallible.
The closest that Djokovic came to win French Open was in 2013. It was a semi-final encounter against Nadal. In the fifth set when Djokovic broke Nadal's serve, it seemed for a while that the Impossible has been done. But before the Impossible culminated, Rafa roared back to break back the serve and clinched the final berth. Djokovic, dismayed by the result, strived to come back stronger the next year.
But like the previous year, Nadal was the victor again.
There are many theories to explain Nadal's imperious form at the French Open. For one, the heavy, top-spin loaded ground strokes of Nadal become too difficult to handle. His ability to reach the ball from all corners of the court is another.
But, most importantly, it is the spirit of the Champion who understands the history (which do not have a precedence) he is making -- each year. His attitude was manifested last year.
Nadal came into French Open with his worst career clay performance, while Djokovic did not look an inch below his peak. Yet, Nadal brushed aside Djokovic in 4 sets in final.
There were tears in Nadal's eyes when he held the trophy for the 9th time. The Champion knew he raised to the occasion, one more time.
The Roland Garros is just around the corner. And like previous years, the narrative is following the same thread: Djokovic in his peak who wants to complete his Career Slam; Nadal in vulnerable form who desparately (even after all these years) wants to defend his title. But like an absurdly optimistic wish, the tennis world would look for missing pieces in Nadal's game to see if can triumph for 10th time.
Or look for an unlikely figure that can repeat the Impossible. Or wait until the final showdown to see if a top-ranked player has found a "way around" the imminent finalist.
But history has taught that history will be repeated. But sports have a dimension of uncertainty which causes us to be wishful and ignorant of history lessons. Nevertheless, until proven contrary, the absurdly wishful thinking will remain absurdly wishful thinking, the Impossible impossible, and the Infallible infallible.