Five thoughts on Day One of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic’s French Open final.
Even more extraordinary than a Nadal air-shot at Roland Garros – he took a giant swing and connected only with the drizzle – was the direction that this match was heading in before it was suspended overnight. If Djokovic can keep this going, if he can level the final at two sets each, and then go on to win La Coupe des Mousquetaires, it would have to be considered one of the greatest comebacks of all time. If not the greatest, when you think what’s riding on this. Beating Nadal at Paris is hard enough – it’s been done just once before, and never before when he is fully fit - and then there’s having to come from two sets down.
When Nadal, already two sets up, took a 2-0 lead in the third, it appeared as though the Majorcan was just a few minutes away from winning a record seventh French Open title. Djokovic was making too many mistakes, he was fretting, gurning, chuntering, and complaining, and it appeared as though his own attempt at history – winning this tournament would make him the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four slams at the same time – was going to have an unfortunate, soggy end.
Then came a shift in momentum, emotion and psychology. Suddenly it was Nadal who looked unhappy. Suddenly the weather and the dank conditions were really bothering him. Earlier, when he was in control, Nadal would have been fine to have played in sleet. It was almost as if Nadal, who once said, “sunshine is energy, sunshine is life”, remembered that he plays his best tennis in beach weather.
With the tennis balls so wet, Nadal was finding it tough to load them with the usual topspin and menace. Djokovic, playing flatter shots, was better placed to control his groundstrokes. Djokovic won eight games in a row, a run which gave him the third set and a 2-0 lead (Nadal held serve before the drizzle became rain, and the match was suspended). Nadal has only lost once before at this tournament, and there is still an asterisk against his defeat to Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009 as he was troubled by the pain in his knees and by problems in his parents’ marriage.
Did the rain delay, the second of the match, save Rafa? It is not as if Djokovic is lacking recent experience of coming from behind to win matches. He beat Italy’s Andreas Seppi from two sets down in the fourth round and saved four match points in his quarter-final with France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
No tennis crowd is more fickle than a Roland Garros crowd, but it was still strange how they treated Djokovic. Paris rightly regarded the world No 1, the man just a win away from his Nole Slam, as the underdog. When he won his first game of the match, to hold for 1-3, the noise from around Court Philippe Chatrier sounded like sympathy. Then they booed the Serbian in the second set, for bouncing his racket on the clay, and swinging it against his chair. Fast-forward to the third and fourth sets, and there were chants of “Novak, Novak” around the stadium.
Perhaps it was ludicrous to imagine that this would ever be straightforward. Their Australian Open final this January lasted for six hours.