When Rafael Nadal arrives on the Court Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros, nothing seems to faze him.
The Spaniard entered Paris with his worst clay-court preparation in a decade, four straight defeats to second seed Novak Djokovic, and concerns about a back injury that hampered him during his loss in the Australian Open final.
Nadal outlasted the Serb yesterday on his favorite tennis court, 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 to win a record-extending ninth French Open championship and tie Pete Sampras with 14 Grand Slam singles titles, second all-time behind the record 17 won by Roger Federer. Nadal struggled with cramps after the match, which had been played as temperatures rose to as high as 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) in Paris.
“I won the most important tournament of the world in clay, probably the most important tournament of the year for me,” Nadal, 28, told reporters, after becoming the first man in history to win Roland Garros five times in a row.
“It was an emotional victory after what happened in Australia,” said Nadal, referring to the Australian Open finals, which he lost to Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland while he struggled with a back injury. He said that defeat affected him mentally for months.
The left-hander has reigned at the French Open since he won the title in his first appearance in 2005. An unknown 17-year-old from Mallorca with long hair, a sleeveless top and three-quarter-length shorts, he beat Mariano Puerta of Argentina to win on his debut. Since then, he’s become the most dominant clay-courter of his generation with 45 titles.
“It’s not impossible, but it’s very, very difficult to stay with Rafa in this court, throughout the whole match on the highest level of performance,” Djokovic, 27, said.
Nadal had come to Roland Garros with concerns about his performance and confidence after his worst warm-up on European red clay in a decade. Instead of his usual two or three tournament victories, he won one tournament ahead of Paris. He also stumbled to players, such as fellow Spaniards David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro, who he usually dominated.
His record at Roland Garros is now 66-1, with his only defeat coming in the fourth round in 2009, when he was beaten on a cold, wet day in Paris by hard-hitting Swede Robin Soderling. Yesterday’s win means he’ll remain the world’s top-ranked male tennis player. Djokovic would have been No. 1 if he’d won his first French Open title.
The Court Philippe Chatrier gives Nadal an advantage, because it is “a very wide and very big court,” Djokovic said.
“He likes to have that visual effect, because it appears that he gets every ball back,” said the Serb, who has now been stopped six times by Nadal in Paris. “He feels more comfortable when he plays on the bigger court. That’s one of the reasons why he’s so successful here.”
Djokovic, a four-time Australian Open champion who has also won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, had set the Roland Garros title as his main goal of the season. He’d added former Wimbledon champion Boris Becker to his coaching team at the beginning of the year.
For a set-and-a-half yesterday, it was Djokovic who had the upper hand.
The Serbian right-hander used a high-bouncing kick serve to unsettle Nadal, while he also surprised him a few times with serve-and-volley and drop shots. Nadal often returned the ball too short, giving Djokovic a chance to attack with his double-handed backhand cross-court as he exploited the space the Spaniard tends to leave in his forehand corner as he runs around his backhand.
Serving to stay in the second set at 6-5, Djokovic’s inside-out forehand, which had been so effective earlier, landed wide to hand Nadal two set points. Nadal screamed ‘Vamos’ as he evened the match with a forehand winner.
“It was a great start,” Djokovic said. “I lost that service game 6-5, and then the momentum went his side. I started playing quite bad, and didn’t move as well. Struggled a little bit physically throughout that third set.”
The momentum had shifted, and Nadal took advantage.
“If he had won the second set I’m not sure I would have won the title,” Nadal said. “I felt the match was more in his hands at the beginning than in my hands.”
Watched by six-time champion Bjorn Borg in the presidential box, Djokovic quickly went down 3-0 in the third set as he dumped a backhand volley off a high defensive return in the net. Djokovic, who had also struggled with the heat during his semifinal, nearly fell off his chair when he sat down.
In the fourth set, Djokovic appeared to get sick as the match entered its fourth hour. Serving for 5-2, Nadal let Djokovic back in the match as he missed a smash and got broken on a cross-court backhand. Needing to hold his serve to stay in the tournament, Djokovic handed Nadal a match point with a forehand error and lost the match as he double-faulted after a spectator shouted out during his ball toss on his second serve.
“In the fourth, I started to feel a little bit better, but then just crucial points he played better,” Djokovic said. “I wasn’t playing at the level that I wanted, especially in the second part of the match.”
Nadal took six of his ten break points while Djokovic only converted three of nine.
“His records speak for themselves,” Djokovic said. “He has won this tournament now nine times. It’s very impressive what he’s playing on this court. He has lost only once in his career on center court. It’s definitely not easy best of five to play against him in these conditions.”