Rafael Nadal won his seventh Roland Garros title and stopped Novak Djokovic's Grand Slam title run.
© Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
Some great players are defined by their excellence on a particular surface while others are defined by how they perform against their top rivals when it appears they are about to overtaken.
In the case of now seven-time Roland Garros champion Rafael Nadal, he is worthy of accolades on both accounts.
For the third time in the now 11-time Grand Slam champion’s illustrious career, he stopped one of his primary rival’s attempts to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win four straight majors when he took down No. 1 Novak Djokovic 6 4, 6 3, 2 6, 7 5 in the French Open final.
With the benefit of an overnight rain, Nadal withstood a furious charge by the Serb, who had won eight straight games against the Spaniard from 0-2 down in the third set and had taken a break and 2-1 lead in the fourth set before the match was postponed on Sunday night. He then returned on Monday, immediately broke back and resumed the type of relentless and aggressive style that had seen him get off to a fast start on Sunday. Eventually, he mentally broke Djokovic at the end of the fourth set when the Serb double faulted to lose the match.
Some might call if a gift, but it in reality it was well earned. Just like he did to Roger Federer in 2006-2007 when the Swiss was going for his fourth straight major title, he stood tall, and slammed the door to Casa de Rafa in their faces. After losing in three consecutive Grand Slam finals to Djokovic, this title run was perhaps his most satisfying of all of his French crowns.
"If I had lost a fourth final, this would have been very difficult for me," Nadal said. "So I felt it really was worth it, giving my best, given everything I have achieved since the beginning of the season or even since the beginning of my career. When you lose, it's because you don't deserve the title. So in my mind, this was the final I had to win. This is why there was a lot of emotion."
While on court Nadal usually appears to focused, fierce and without self doubt. That is not the man who spent a good part of four days worrying about the contest with Djokovic after he won his semifinal over David Ferrer. He said he felt tired and nervous and wasn’t even mentally prepared to go on court until few minutes before the final. Then after the match was stopped because of rain, he barely slept on Sunday night. He watched a soccer match, a bit of the news, but couldn’t find a movie to see so he reread chapters of his favorite comic book series, Sengoku, three times before he fell asleep.
Perhaps it was good that Nadal reread Sengoku, as the characters are usually involved in pitched battles and that’s exactly what would occur with Djokovic the next day. Nadal had the usual case of pre-match jitters, but he knew he had come close to besting Djokovic in their epic five hour and 53 minute final in Australia and it is on clay where he feels the most mentally secure as he believes that it's the surface that most fits his style.
He had said all season that he was attempting to technically and strategically improve to the point where he could get over Djokovic again, but it was one thing to do it in the finals of Monte Carlo and Rome, and another to it in the finals of major, as Djokovic was the more confident player in their last three meetings in the finals at 2011 Wimbledon, the 2011 US Open and the 2012 Australian Open.
"After the US Open when I said, ‘I know what I have to do to win, of course I know,’" Nadal said. "Now the question is: 'Am I capable of doing that?' There is theory and there is what you do.
"In Australia I was not in a very good shape, mentally speaking," he added. "I could have won, but for mental reasons, as I had lost, I was probably not in the best mental status. Now I'm here, I made it; I did everything I could to win this match. For me, it's great emotion. Maybe at the beginning of the year you start thinking, ‘Okay, what's the tournament I really want to win and I want to start playing in a very good shape?’ Well, for me, it's [Roland Garros]."
So now the tour heads to the grass, where two-time Wimbledon champion Nadal will see if his rediscovered confidence will be enough to stop defending champion Djokovic again. There, Nadal will not be able to coax Djokovic into perilous slides five feet behind the baseline. There, the Serb can play further inside the court and dictate with his airtight groundstrokes.
However, Nadal has shown in the past that he can win on all surfaces and now that he's vanquished Djokovic, maybe he can make another run at four straight majors like he did in 2010 when he won three straight and then was stymied by injury and David Ferrer at the 2011 Aussie Open.
While the likes of Federer, Andy Murray, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych and hopefully for American fans John Isner, Mardy Fish and Andy Roddick readying themselves for assault on the Wimbledon title, Nadal and Djokovic are by no means guaranteed to meet in their fifth straight major final. But who would be surprised if they did? No one.
"We are very young, and we played over 30 times against each other, and hopefully we can have many more battles in the next years," Djokovic said.