The painful wait for history
PARIS -- This match, played under leaden, sodden skies, was difficult to fully grasp. In a rare display of frustration, No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic trashed his wooden changeover bench with his racket, earning an abuse-of-racket warning from the chair umpire. Naturally, Djokovic staged a remarkable comeback and thrust himself to within touching distance. In the process, No. 2 Rafael Nadal came absolutely unstrung, a sight almost as rare as seeing him lose eight straight games on his favorite court in the world.
So, how do you take one of the most anticipated tennis matches in history and make it even more excruciating, dramatically tantalizing?
You stop it in the fourth set, with both players on the cusp of meaningful history. You send them back to their hotels and make the French Open men's final a best-of-one-and-a-half-sets affair. A two-day event -- or, perhaps, three if the rain continues as expected.
This is what happened Sunday at Roland Garros, when a dire forecast came to pass. It will be resumed Monday at 7 a.m. ET with Nadal leading two sets to one (6-4, 6-3, 2-6), but with Djokovic up a service break in the fourth, 2-1.
It appeared to be over, it really did.
Nadal was up two sets and a break, but the man who beat him in seven straight matches before losing the last two seems to have crept back into his head.
And that makes things very interesting.
In terms of Open era history, this match probably has the most at stake. Which, considering that takes in a total of 177 men's major finals across 44 years, is saying something.
Nadal is seeking his seventh French Open title, which would move him one ahead of Bjorn Borg, the Swedish champion who won his six crowns from 1974 to '81. Nadal remains 51-1 at Roland Garros -- the best record of any player in the Open era at any Grand Slam event.
Djokovic, who has won 27 consecutive Grand Slam singles matches, is still attempting to win his fourth consecutive Grand Slam title, something that hasn't been done since 1969, when Rod Laver won a calendar-year Slam.
This was the fourth consecutive major final featuring these two -- an Open era record -- but the circumstances were far different than in those previous three. This was on red clay, Nadal's refuge, the surface he navigates better than any other player ever -- like an otter cavorting in a rushing stream.
Over his career, Nadal has never suffered a run as humiliating as the one last year at the hands of Djokovic. He lost six straight matches, including the finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. When he finally fell in a seventh, the 5-hour, 53-minute epic in this year's Australian Open final, Rafa must have been furious -- and oddly comforted by the result. He nearly won the match -- probably could have with an easy backhand in the fifth set -- and entered the clay-court season with an unprecedented purpose.
Wins over Djokovic at Monte Carlo and Rome came with various asterisks, however, and this thing had to be settled in Paris.
In the 58 minutes of the torrid first set, Nadal displayed why he has lost only once here. Djokovic simply couldn't get a forehand past him, and when the rallies grew long and tense, it was almost always Djokovic who cracked. Serving at 4-3, Nadal lost the first point on a splendid forehand service return winner. And then four straight Djokovic errors (three on the backhand side) gave Nadal the game.
Djokovic, desperate to change the dynamic, resorted to creativity. A drop shot here, a running forehand lob there. It was enough to win a few service games, but not enough to break Nadal, who won the set's lengthy, penultimate point with an exquisite drop shot and then took it home with a big serve and a forehand into the open court.
How important was it for Djokovic to take that opening set? Rafa's 11-2 edge in matches on clay becomes unassailable when he wins the first frame; Djokovic may not have known it, but he was 0-10 under those circumstances.
Nadal broke Djokovic in the seventh game of the second set, and after that little encounter with the changeover bench, the expected rains finally came. With Djokovic serving at 3-5, the players walked off and endured a 35-minute delay. Nadal, with a brilliant running, sliding backhand winner, quickly collected the second set.
Djokovic, mustering the verve and spirit that carried him to the top of tennis a year ago, broke Nadal in the fourth game of the third set. He won six straight games to force a fourth set; remarkably, Djokovic became only the eighth man to take a set from Nadal at Roland Garros.
As Djokovic was rallying famously, winning eight straight games, Nadal was falling into a foul mood. At one point, he threw a soggy yellow ball at the supervisor. And finally, when Rafa had stopped the bleeding and held serve for a 2-1 deficit in the fourth set, play was stopped for the second time.
"You made us play for an hour in this rain, why stop now?" he said sarcastically to tournament referee Stefan Fransson. "Always the same with you, you never take one position."
Nadal's coach and uncle, Toni Nadal, lit into tournament officials when the players came off the courts.
If you are a stickler for detail, the match was officially suspended because of darkness following a 70-minute rain delay, the second delay of the day.
It likely will be a long, restless night for the 26-year-old Spaniard.
And a long night for all those aching for another slice of tennis history.
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