- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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PARIS -- Near the end of the third set, Novak Djokovic was gasping for air like a desperate sole that had found its way into the fish-unfriendly Seine River.
With Rafael Nadal serving at 4-2, Djokovic summoned whatever modest strength he had left and forced five deuces in a dense, tense game. In the end, a weak Djokovic backhand found the net after a scrambling Nadal retrieved consecutive balls from beyond the forehand and backhand doubles alleys.
The look on Djokovic's face was ... was it disbelief or just emptiness staring into an unspeakable void? Whatever it was, Rafa broke him immediately, and viciously, to take the third set and, effectively, the match. In a few minutes, Djokovic, in the memorable manner of Pete Sampras at the 1996 US Open, would spill some contents of his stomach on Court Philippe Chatrier.
This is what Nadal does to people at Roland Garros virtually every time he plays. He guts them or, to continue the fish metaphor, fillets them. Despite losing the first set, the Spaniard muscled Djokovic 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4.
"Sometimes you don't have that great feeling," Nadal said. "It's more difficult to produce these kind of shots, no? Is true that at the beginning the match start very equal, but I felt that the match was more in his hands at the beginning than in my hands.
"I was winning more points from his mistakes than from my winners, and I need to change that. I think in the second set that the dynamic of the match changed. I was able to play more aggressive. I did better things."
The match -- played under broiling conditions that saw the players employing ice yokes on changeovers -- required 3 hours, 31 minutes, but the last two sets did not look anything like No. 1 versus No. 2.
"Physically I felt I was totally empty, drained, exhausted," Nadal said. "I don't know. Five sets, I don't know if I could have played a five-set match. I was not feeling well at all physically speaking. Well, motivation and also the hope that I could perhaps win this match, win the tournament, the appetite I had, well, these are the reasons why I managed to stick to it to the very end."
Appropriately, the last stroke was a double fault off the racket of Djokovic. Approaching the net to congratulate Nadal, Djokovic waved a sarcastic thumbs-up to the crowd he felt didn't treat him especially well just before that final mistake.
Nadal's numbers are beginning to soar well beyond surreal. Rafa, who turned 28 last week, has now won:
• An astonishing nine French Open titles -- two more than any other player in history has won at any Grand Slam -- and an unprecedented five in a row.
• A searing 66 of 67 matches at Roland Garros, including 35 straight; the lone loss to Robin Soderling came some 1,833 days ago.
• Fourteen Grand Slam singles titles, tying him with Sampras for second overall and leaving him only three behind Roger Federer.
Nadal collected $2.25 million, the opportunity to take another antic bite out of the Coupe des Mousquetaires trophy, 10 kilograms of solid silver, and another step toward immortality. Beating Rafa at the French Open may not merely be the most difficult feat in tennis -- it might be the toughest task in all of sport.
Nadal sobbed, head in hands, before Bjorn Borg, a champion here 40 years ago, awarded him the trophy.
"Last year was emotional for a few things," Nadal said. "This year are emotional for another ones. But for sure when you are able to win Roland Garros, always will be emotional, no? And then more when your age is older, no? Last year was with 27; this year is with 28. That's not forever. You know how hard is all the things that I am doing here. You want to enjoy the moment. You feel your emotions when you are there and you did it, because you know how much you worked to be there."
This was supposed to be the year that Nadal was vulnerable at Roland Garros. He lost three matches in the clay events leading to Paris, something that hadn't happened in a decade. Meanwhile, Djokovic was lighting it up -- three weeks ago in Rome, he beat Nadal in straight sets -- and had posted four straight wins.
"You know, that's sport," Djokovic said afterward. "It's how it is. These kind of big matches obviously take the best out of players. And, of course, it's a huge challenge. I tried to do my best. My best wasn't as the best against him in Rome a couple weeks ago.
"Congratulations to him. He was a better player in the crucial moments. Of course it's disappointing for me, but life goes on. It's not the first time or last time that I lost a match."
Their shared history suggested an impressive Djokovic learning curve. In his five previous matches against Rafa at Roland Garros, the 27-year-old Serb increasingly won more games and, like clockwork, forced longer matches. Last year, Djokovic pushed Nadal to five sets in the semifinals, a match that ran 4 hours, 37 minutes.
These two know each other better than any rivals, current or past; this was their 42nd meeting as ATP World Tour professionals, the most ever. Nothing separated them through seven games, with Djokovic keeping Nadal honest with his anticipation, ability to take the ball exceedingly early and crowding the baseline -- the reason it's more dangerous for Nadal to run around his backhand against Djokovic than any other player.
The eighth game, featuring new explosive balls, seemed to surprise Nadal. It helped deliver Djokovic three break points, and he finally took the last when Rafa's inside-out forehand sailed wide. Serving for the first set, Djokovic faced two break points, but Nadal couldn't keep his forehand in the court. When Djokovic hit a choice cross-court forehand, Nadal's lunging return sailed long.
This was a dramatic departure from their five previous matches here -- all Djokovic losses. Nadal, who likes to dictate policy from the front end of matches, won the first set in each encounter (and 14 of 17 overall). This seemed to suggest the karma was changing
Of the 21 matches that Nadal beat Djokovic, not including a retirement, only one came after he lost the first set -- five years ago in Madrid.
In the back of his mind, Nadal might have sensed this, because he got his first service break in the sixth game of the second set. A weak forehand from Djokovic found the net, but Nadal's prosperity lasted about five minutes. With Nadal serving at 4-2, Djokovic broke right back with a big forehand that Rafa couldn't match.
Djokovic was serving to get to the tiebreaker, but Nadal, with two marvelous forehand winners, applied the screws and leveled the match at a set apiece.
It was soon less than level for Djokovic, who appeared to lose a lot of energy with the loss of the second set. The question of his physical condition had persisted since his uneven four-set victory over Ernests Gulbis in the semifinals. Djokovic admitted he had suffered, while Nadal had looked sharp in his dismantling of Andy Murray. Nadal broke Djokovic rather easily in the second game of the third set; Djokovic bunted a bunny of a volley into the net, and Rafa won the next game at love to take a 3-0 lead.
Djokovic, feeling the heat -- from Rafa and the scorched red earth beneath him -- began to display the dismaying body language that led to retirements in four of the first 17 Grand Slam tournaments he played.
"I did have the period of the match, as I mentioned, end of the second and the whole third set, I struggled a little bit," Djokovic said. "But as I said, 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.
"It's normal that you have ups and downs. I was just hoping that in the fourth I would be able to come back. I started feeling, as I said, a little bit better, but I wasn't managing to, you know, bring my A-game when it was most needed in the end of the fourth."
Clearly Djokovic's B-game wasn't going to cut it against Nadal, who now owns a ridiculous 90-1 record in best-of-five clay-court matches.
"For me is amazing emotional today," Nadal said. "I lost the final at Australia with a back injury. Tennis gave me back what happened in Australia. Playing at Roland Garros is unforgettable to me forever.
"It is very difficult for me to talk right now."
Nadal, though, had little trouble finding his words.
"Whatever happens for the rest of the season, I must say I have done so much already since the beginning of the year," he said. "Since I started my career, it's been 10 years, and for 10 years I have played many tournaments at a high level.
"To me, winning is the result, the equivalent of lots of effort. Therefore, I feel more serene, and personally I'm very satisfied."
As he should be.
Rafael Nadal proved once again that beating him at the French Open is the toughest task in sports, writes Greg Garber.