It looked a near certainty even before the first balls were hit in Paris two weeks ago that we'd witness another final between Djokovic and Nadal on Philippe Chatrier. For the first time in years, the bookmakers' had Rafa down as the underdog, and Novak seemed to justify his billing as narrow favourite by taking the opening set. What followed was an intriguing clash which perhaps lacked the quality of many of their 41 previous meetings, but what will fittingly go down as one of 2014's most attritious tennis matches:
In 35 of the 41 previous meetings between Djokovic and Nadal, the man who won the first set went on to win the match, so when the Serb saved two break points to close out the opener, it looked as if 2014 really could be the year that he became the 8th man to win all four Grand Slam events in his career. Djokovic was solid behind serve in the first set, eventually forging the first break of the match in the 8th game and backing up to take the lead after a couple of wayward forehands from Nadal let him out of jail.
Rafa came roaring back in the second set and broke to lead 4-2, only to drop serve in the next game. With Djokovic fans getting increasingly hopeful that this was their man's day, a member of the Philippe Chatrier crowd riled the Serb as he served to take the set to a tie break, Rafa pounced and all of the sudden the match was level, and the bullish Spaniard had all the momentum going into the third. This wasn't the last time the crowd were to have a say on the destination of the Coupe des Mousquetaires either, but I'll get around to that...
After two closely-fought sets in the blistering heat of a glorious Parisien Sunday, both men were showing signs of some serious wear and tear. Having secured an early break in the vital third set, Nadal made almost no effort to get into his opponent's next two service games, even hunching over between more arduous points. It was a risky strategy for the defending champion to employ as Djokovic forced him to deuce twice and even got to break point as he tried to battle back, but the second seed eventually gifted his greatest rival the lead, dropping serve again with a long forehand.
Matters worsened for both men in the fourth set, as Djokovic was seen to throw up twice on court and Nadal continued to lean on his knees at times and began to show signs of some lower back ailments. It was the Serb who was broken once again though in the sixth game and looked dead and buried, but he extended the match by getting it straight back following an erroneous service game from the King of Clay. Rafa held from 30-30 to go 5-4 up and finally secured his 9th title at Roland Garros by breaking Djokovic in the next game. There was controversy on championship point as another yell from the crowd disrupted the Serb on his second serve, resulting in his surrendering the tie with a double fault, but there was no disputing that Rafael Nadal was the deserving winner in a gruelling final.
Implications for Nadal
Last year, Nadal made history as the first man to win the same Grand Slam event eight times, and this year he extended that record to nine, also breaking new ground as the first to win at Roland Garros for five consecutive years. The main number of interest for Rafa though is number 14. He has now won as many major titles as the great Pete Sampras and has moved within three of his great rival Roger Federer's tally of 17. The question now is whether the great Spaniard can go on to match or even surpass Federer, which will surely see him accepted by most as the greatest to have ever played the game.
Implications for Djokovic
It's hard to see any silver lining behind the cloud that now hangs over Djokovic. After losing to Nadal at Roland Garros four times in the past, his last attempt the closest of all, this should surely have been the year that he finally ticked the biggest empty box on his professional CV. With Boris Becker added to his team to help with the mental side of the big points he felt he could improve on, and Rafa's most wobbly clay swing in many years, which saw Novak defeat him in the final of the Rome Masters three weeks ago, all the signs pointed towards the Serb's best chance yet of completing the career slam.
Defeat leaves him in a difficult position regarding the French Open, he seems to have done pretty much everything he can, he's a fantastic clay court player, but it still isn't enough. More worrying is that Djokovic has won just 2 of 9 Grand Slam finals outside Australia now, and he will be asking some serious questions of himself for the next couple of weeks before opening his campaign at Wimbledon. Boris is going to have some work to do.
With Queen's Club and the Gerry Weber Open in Halle kicking off tomorrow, with Nadal, Federer, Murray and Wawrinka among those in action, I will be covering the beginning of the grass court season and the run up to Wimbledon with a handful of new articles. I hope you're as excited as me about the grass court swing.
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