Nadal tops Djokovic in French
PARIS — Rafael Nadal was worried.
A guy so unflinching, so nearly unbeatable, while sliding and grinding and pounding his way past opponent after opponent at the French Open, got a real case of nerves during the 18 hours he and Novak Djokovic waited for the restart of their rain-interrupted final at Roland Garros.
Instead of focusing on how close he was to winning a record seventh French Open championship, Nadal grew increasingly wary of the other possible outcome: a loss in a fourth consecutive Grand Slam final against Djokovic, who was trying to become the first man since 1969 to collect four straight major titles.
When play was halted by showers on Sunday, Nadal was clinging to an ever-shrinking lead. It wasn't until a few minutes before setting foot back on Court Philippe Chatrier, his favorite arena at his favorite tournament on his favorite surface, that Nadal set aside his anxiety. Oh, did he. The King of Clay overwhelmed the No.1-ranked Djokovic for the 50 minutes and nine games they played Monday, wrapping up a 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 victory that allowed Nadal to earn French Open trophy No. 7, breaking a tie with Bjorn Borg.
"You never know if you're going to win another one," said the second-ranked Nadal, who now owns 11 Grand Slam titles.
"I don't know if I am the best or not," he added. "I am not the right one to say that."
Djokovic, for his part, had zero doubts. He worked his way back into the match with an eight-game run when it was pouring Sunday, but otherwise was outplayed, at the start and the finish.
"He's definitely (the) best player in history ... on this surface," said Djokovic, whose 27-match Grand Slam winning streak ended, "and results are showing that he's one of the best ever."
Can't argue with that. Since his French Open debut at age 18 in May 2005, Nadal is 52-1 for his career at the tournament, the only loss coming to Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009. He's just as good elsewhere on clay, too: Nadal's won eight titles at Monte Carlo, seven at Barcelona, six at Rome.
Asked to explain his success on the surface, Nadal pointed not to his uppercut of a topspin-slathered forehand, or his superior returns of serve, but rather to his movement, his mental fortitude, and this: "I always was scared to lose."
Djokovic gave Nadal reason for added concern, having beaten him in the finals at Wimbledon in July, the U.S. Open in September, and the Australian Open in January. Djokovic was attempting to be only the third man to win four major tournaments in succession, joining Don Budge in 1938, and Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969.
Alas, Djokovic ran into Nadal at Roland Garros. The same thing happened to Roger Federer in 2006 and 2007, when his Grand Slam bids fell one win short because of losses to Nadal in the French Open final.
"For us, it was very important to win here now against Djokovic because we knew that if he won again, the fourth one, then (Rafa) completing a Grand Slam of losses would have been ugly," said Toni Nadal, Rafael's uncle and coach. "And we were very close to doing that."
Instead, his nephew gained ground on Federer's record of 16 Grand Slam titles, tying Borg and Laver for fourth place.
Borg walked away from the sport at age 25 after losing the 1981 Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals to John McEnroe.
On Sunday, after Nadal held serve to get within 2-1 in the fourth set, they were sent home for the night, pushing the French Open beyond Sunday for the first time since 1973.
By noon Monday, an hour before play resumed, normally bustling Roland Garros was eerily empty. Souvenir stands were shuttered. Green barriers blocked access to a pathway leading to several courts. There were hundreds of unclaimed seats in the stands at the main stadium, and thick, gray clouds loomed overhead when the players stepped out.
Well-rested, they opened with a crescendo: The first point contained eight strokes, the third had 11, the fourth had 16, and the fifth had 21, ending with Djokovic's errant forehand that gave Nadal a chance to break.
On the next point, Nadal's shot slapped the white tape atop the net and trickled over. Djokovic got to the ball but couldn't do much, setting up Nadal for a cross-court backhand passing winner.
That was the break Nadal needed, and this was the Nadal everyone is accustomed to seeing charge around Roland Garros.
Even a passing shower that the players waited out on the sideline didn't slow Nadal. With Djokovic trailing 6-5, and serving to try to force a tiebreaker, Nadal smacked a forehand winner to get to match point. Djokovic saved four match points in the quarterfinals, but there would be no such reprieve this time.
Instead, Djokovic double-faulted, an anticlimactic ending to a highly anticipated match filled with awkward stops and starts because of the uncooperative weather.