By Jane Voigt
Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic threw in every type of serve, spin and angle during their semifinal match on Court Philippe Chatrier today. And no one was sure of the outcome until the last game when Nadal looked up at his box and smiled like a 3-year-old. He had given himself a chance to win his eighth French Open title by defeating the No. 1 seed, 64 36 61 67(3) 97.
“This was a really emotional match, that’s the truth,” Nadal began. “I lost a match like this in Australia. This one was for me.”
Nadal firmly demonstrated that he was no longer the defensive oriented player of yesteryears, especially in the opening set. His mastery of his forehand and the lethal angles he can produce off that forehand were sparked by pure instinct. Djokovic’s insistence on taking the ball early and bludgeoning shot after shot — most aimed at breaking down Rafa’s forehand — created a brutal, tiring path for the man who proclaimed he would win because he was confident and knew how to beat the Spaniard.
“‘It’s been an unbelievable match to be part of, but all I can feel now is disappointment,'” Djokovic said, reported Sports Illustrated, Jon Wertheim.
This was Djokovic’s 12th consecutive Major final. He was seeking his first French Open title, the one missing from his portfolio. Had he advanced and won, he would have had his career Grand Slam. “‘For me, it’s another year,'” Novak said, reported SI.
Both men weaved in and out of focus.
In the second set, Djokovic was down a break, then broke back and broke again to win the set. He had run off four consecutive games. He pinned Nadal behind the baseline on the add side, driven the ball deep to his backhand once, twice, three times, as he approached the net. Boom … he volleyed off a winner. This tactic worked again and again.
The third was a bizarre experience. Djokovic changed up his tactics, diverting from driving ground strokes to loopy ones. He went down 0-3. The look on his face was distant. Errors piled up. His down-the-line backhand money shot wigged out; his timing gone.
When both played their best, the match was an amazing display of skill and athleticism. Rallies boggled the mind. Ridiculously fast, deep shots were flicked back in play. Drop volleys were tracked down, lifted over the net, returned as an angled drop volley, and run down for one more shot … finally, the put away. Djokovic sent a lob high over Nadal’s head. He ran, hit it back between his legs — a duck-of-a-shot for Novak who uncharacteristically slapped it in the net. For the match, Djokovic won 1 point off 7 overhead smashes.
Rafa grabbed the first break in the fourth. Hold on to it and he was off court. Djokovic tried to catch up, and failed. Rafa earned a point penalty from Chair Umpire Pasquale Maria, but didn’t blink. At 6-5 he served for the match and Novak broke, again, then won the tiebreak to push the match to five sets.
This time Djokovic went up the break and held on to 4-3. A floater from Nadal sparked a dash to the net by Djokovic. He slid, but was too close to the net and hit it. His shot was good. Nadal pointed like a kid on the playground … see, he hit the net. Djokovic dramatized the error, gazing at Maria, arguing with Maria all the while knowing with all probability that he was in the wrong.
Nadal broke to 4-4.
Djokovic served from behind from there on out. The could have been there for another hour or two. But at 7-8 Djokovic played the worst game of the match, and maybe the worse game of his life given its import.
He hit a forehand long. He watched a volley pass by and drop in. He hit another forehand long. He missed an overhead.
Djokovic had lost the game, and match, at love.
“I’m more happy about the way I fought in the fifth,” Nadal said, “after losing a big chance in the fourth. Djokovic always come back.”
With all the will and ability to turn things around for himself throughout the match, this one game left fans scratching their heads. Maybe the loss of the break and his exchange with Maria about touching the net lingered. Djokovic grumbled about the back court. He wanted it swept; it wanted it watered. Again Maria ruled no.
“In my opinion, the court was too slippery,” Djokovic said. “I asked for it to be watered. It was difficult to change direction. I just don’t understand. I think that it’s wrong, what they did. I wanted this title so much, but I have years in front of me. I will come back.”
Djokovic’s uneven temperament stood in stark contrast to Nadal’s steady progress over the five sets. That’s not to say Nadal doesn’t blow his cool on court. However, today he did not.
Both men, though, showed their vulnerabilities. They exposed weaknesses. They were not only flawed, not god, but were examples of humanness.
When Djokovic broke early in the fifth, expectations pointed toward victory. That’s what he had and has done to Nadal in finals — he comes back. Djokovic won every final they played between the March 2011 BNP Paribas Open and the January 2012 Australian Open.
Likewise, with Nadal serving for the match at 6-5, not many who would have bet against him closing it out.
Yet, in the end, the man who rules this court stood his ground, his record 58-1. From his first title in 2005 he knew this court alone was the most special. Only Robin Soderling pushed him from the throne, in 2009. In 2010, Nadal defeated the Swede and recovered his pride on the terre battue.
“[To win a match like this] you need to love the game,” Nadal said. “You need to love what your are doing and appreciate every moment. I have learned to enjoy suffering in these matches because what is much harder is to be injured at home in Mallorca, watching these matches on TV.”
If Nadal wins his eighth crown, his name will be cast in stone in history books as the best-ever on clay. No one will approach his wizardry, his heart, and the mystique that has buoyed him for nine years.
Nadal will face his friend and countryman, David Ferrer, in Sunday’s final.
In the second semifinal of the day, Ferrer defeated the odds-on favorite Frenchman, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, 61 76(3) 62. Yannick Noah was the last Frenchman to win Roland Garros in 1983. Tsonga aimed to meet his destiny on the 30th anniversary of Noah’s feat. Ferrer, though, was tougher than tough. And, at 31, he reached his first-ever Major final.
“My opponent didn’t make a lot of mistakes, unlike Roger Federer in my last match,” Tsonga said. “The plan was to be aggressive and control the baseline. But he defended well. He was even faster than usually.”
Uncle Toni, Nadal’s life-long coach, predicted Ferrer was a threat before the tournament began. Now it is up to his nephew to stand his ground and take the threat like a man worthy of eight.