June 8, 2014(ISN) – France – Have you heard? Rafael Nadal is not as dominant on clay as he once was, apparently. He may not win Roland Garros again, so it is said. Exactly which year this speculation might refer to is unclear, because it certainly does not apply to 2014. Barring the great Spaniard’s retirement from the game, there will come a time when he plays here and does not raise the Coupe des Mousquetaires skywards, but such an idea is part of some strange and fanciful future beyond imagination.
On the final day of Roland Garros 2014, Nadal faced Novak Djokovic, perhaps the only man who could have challenged him for the crown the Majorcan prizes above all others – but what transpired merely reinforced the Rafa legend. For a short while the world trembled on its axis when he surrendered the first set, but Nadal simply adjusted his focus to win in four: 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 in three hours and 31 minutes. His ninth title at Roland Garros is, of course, astonishing, not least because – with the greatest respect to Djokovic – the most significant story this fortnight would either be Rafa Wins Nine or Rafa Loses. The achievements of other names would be secondary, even those of a player for whom victory would mean the completion of his career Grand Slam.
For a time at the start of the match, the unthinkable seemed possible, even though the hot conditions would favour 28-year-old Nadal. That intensity of focus which Djokovic has displayed throughout this tournament was in place once again, and when the Spaniard’s service first came under threat in the middle of the set the crowd on Philippe Chatrier Court bayed as if on championship point. They wanted an epic, a thriller, and roared louder still when Djokovic clouted a forehand down the line for his third break point. Nadal sent the ball wide and it was 3-5. For his first set point, the Serb produced a spectacular wrong-footer which left Nadal all but face down in the dirt, and he sealed it with a supremely controlled rally.
Djokovic, it should be noted, has never lost a final where he has won the first set. On the other hand, the prevailing wisdom has it that if Nadal wins more than 50% of points on his second service against Djokovic, he wins the set – and in the set he had just lost, the relevant figure stood at 57%. Take your pick. It still felt like the next set was essential for Djokovic, and somehow merely optional for Nadal.
At 2-3 in the second, Djokovic found himself break point down for the second time, whereupon Nadal ran around his backhand to convert it. Djokovic levelled, but with Nadal at 6-5 on service, the mood was all of crushing heat and a long road yet to be travelled for the Serb. So it proved. Djokovic sent a forehand way wide for set point, and Nadal put the ball beyond his reach. The extravagance of the Spaniard’s celebration clubbed home the significance.
Already an air of deflation hung around the court. The atmosphere sagged further when Nadal concluded a 22-stroke rally with a smash to bring up break point, whereupon Djokovic dunked a disastrous backhand volley in the net. The Serb slumped in his chair at the changeover as if ill. He forced a break point of his own at 1-3 but could do nothing with it, and by 2-4 his frustration boiled over as he dropped his racquet to the clay. This was a game which would last 11 minutes, as Djokovic fought fruitlessly on and on, only to fluff a backhand into the net. With the set all but gone he stayed rooted to the spot, staring sightlessly at his entourage in the stands, and having wandered back to his chair, the thousand-yard stare returned. On Nadal’s first set point, Djokovic sent the ball sailing beyond the baseline.
If the No.2 seed looked spent then, it looked all over in the fourth when Nadal broke for 4-2. Yet astonishingly Djokovic came back, when loose play from the Spaniard offered two break points. Nadal retrieved one with a big service, but on the second Djokovic’s return was too much. Hope sprang. But it was not to be trusted. At 4-5 the Serb once again sent the ball long, only this time it created championship point. He composed himself before serving… and delivered a double fault.
Victory is cruel, and victory is glorious. The champion supreme sank to his knees on the baseline. Today more than any other, he is on Cloud Nine.