Commentary

Rafa overcomes rain and Djoker

Updated: June 11, 2012, 4:34 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

PARIS -- Throughout the fortnight, ample space existed for the rise of the underdog.

There was Sara Errani, she of the 5-foot-4 frame and magical blue eyes, who marched to the singles final. There was Brian Baker, who overcame six surgeries and a five-year absence from the sport to earn a first-round victory in a Slam.

There were six unseeded women, including Americans Sloane Stephens and Varvara Lepchenko, who advanced to the fourth round. And an unknown Belgian, David Goffin, who took a fourth-round set from the great Roger Federer on Court Philippe Chatrier.

[+] EnlargeNadal
Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty ImagesAfter this win, it's safe to say that Rafael Nadal believes he is again on even footing with Novak Djokovic.

But this tournament will mostly be remembered for the powerful effect of the elements on the men's final. First, rain contributed to a tilting of what appeared to be a dominant performance by Rafael Nadal to a revived and immovable Novak Djokovic. And later, the swing back in Nadal's favor.

Nadal fell to his knees after Djokovic double-faulted on match point to give Rafa his seventh French Open title, a rugged, desperate and nervous 6-4, 6-4, 2-6, 7-5 affair. Nadal had overcome history, breaking the record of six French titles that he once shared with Bjorn Borg.

It was Nadal's first win against Djokovic in a Grand Slam since the 2010 U.S. Open -- another rain-interrupted affair that had great consequences on the future. Perhaps more of pertinent importance, Nadal had finally, for the first time in his past three Slam tries, overcame the formidable, physical and emotional mountain that is Djokovic.

After losing seven consecutive finals and three majors to Djokovic, Nadal now finds himself completely on even footing with the world No. 1. Everything Djokovic had taken from him in terms of confidence and belief was restored Monday, a particularly gratifying occurrence considering that before the rain, Djokovic seemed on the verge of handing Nadal what certainly would have been the greatest, most devastating defeat of his career.

The indomitable Djokovic was down two sets to Nadal and serving at 2-0 in the third. Djokovic had tossed his racket once and used it to smash the front of his bench. He had spent the first two sets raising his hands in frustration and talking to himself and to his box that he could not penetrate the hungry Nadal's defense.

If the French Open is to be remembered for the career Grand Slam that Maria Sharapova now owns and Djokovic's unsuccessful quest to join her and the seven other men in history who have, it should also be remembered for the virtually unbreakable Djokovic.

No player in the game today wrests the belief away from his opponents like Djokovic. There is the Nadal muscle and fury, but it is different than the pride of Djokovic. There is a feeling that when he is at the end, with virtually no hope and no margin for error, he relaxes and plays his best.

Djokovic seems to summon the pride of the underdog, of the forgotten, playing beyond himself but for also for his people. At Chatrier, the Nadal lovers cheered wildly, but the Djokovic followers cheered with passion and demanded to be recognized.

This is how Djokovic plays. The Serbian strived to be recognized alongside the first-world glamour of Spain and Switzerland, alongside the royalty of tennis' leading men, Nadal and Federer. Djokovic does not ask for a seat at the table as much as he demands it. He employs his will relentlessly when a lead against him could be larger and should be insurmountable. Just then, because he is still alive, the doubt surfaces across the net just as his resolve increases.

But at crunch time against Nadal, Djokovic did not relax and steer his will as he did down two sets against Andreas Seppi in the fourth round and as he did in wiping away four match points against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarters.

[+] EnlargeNovak Djokovic
Kenzo Tribouillard/Getty ImagesThe rain helped but, ultimately, hurt Novak Djokovic's chance to win his fourth straight major.

But Djokovic gave it his all. In the third set, when it was time to accelerate and bury Djokovic, Nadal had grown tight, his backhand fell fatally short and his forehand desperately long. There was Djokovic poised once again to take everything away Nadal had built.

Down 2-0, Djokovic broke Nadal, the start of an eight-game winning streak -- the final six of the third set and the first two of the fourth. Nadal looked lost, unable to outhit Djokovic. Djokovic had thwarted him; he had shifted the narrative and could see the history changing -- and then it started raining.

"I could have easily lost the match in the fourth round or even more against Tsonga, but I managed to come to the finals for the first time in my career," Djokovic said. "I should be happy about that, of course. I will be, and I am, but in this moment I am disappointed about this loss because I thought I started to play better in the third set and felt like I could take this match to a fifth set and then everything could be possible, but there was a rain delay when I started to feel really good on the court."

Nadal, though, pounced on Djokovic after the delay, after an overnight respite to regroup and remember that he is a 10-time champion. Nadal broke him immediately to level the match, attacking and pounding forehands. Revived, Nadal did not face a break point once play resumed, while Djokovic couldn't force a fifth set, double-faulting on match point.

"I don't want to find an excuse, because the first rain delay maybe helped me a little bit and the second helped him," Djokovic said. "So that's the way it goes, and the better player won today. Congratulations for that."

Nadal and Djokovic have put on a terrific show of backbreaking rallies and mental fortitude, and tennis is better for it heading into Wimbledon. Just as in 2010, when Nadal was the superior player, Djokovic is now an overall better player than Nadal, if by a sliver.

Yet Nadal hoisted the trophy not only by being better in the championship moments but by retaining his belief that the Djokovic legend could be toppled. Now that it has, Wimbledon just grew much, much more interesting.