Monday, June 11, 2012

Roland Garros Final: The Irresistible Force Meets the Immovable Object

In a history-overloaded match that turned into something of a logistical nightmare with a weather-related Monday conclusion, Rafael Nadal completed yet another dream run in Paris with a win in the men's final over world #1 Novak Djokovic, gaining a record seventh Roland Garros crown while simultaneously preventing the Serb from becoming the first man to claim four straight slam championships in forty-three years.

For years, Nadal has made a pretty good "immovable object" on red clay, so much so that it's often seemed unfair for opponents to have to contend with his grinding and pounding play, particularly on the terre battue in Paris. The 26-year old Spaniard has been setting records for dominance on the stuff since he was a teenager. He won his first RG title at nineteen, becoming the fourth-youngest man to ever claim the crown, and put together an ATP record 81-match clay court winning streak from 2005-07. Coming into the final, he sported a 51-1 career match record at Roland Garros. Meanwhile, ever since leading Serbia to a Davis Cup title to end the 2010 season, Djokovic, 25, has been something of an "irresistible force." Last year, he put together a 41-match season-opening winning streak. Going 8-0 in '11 finals against Nadal and Roger Federer, he won three slams and overtook both "Greatest of All Time" contenders in the rankings. While following up such a career year has been difficult, Djokovic opened '12 by taking down Nadal in a 5:53 Australian Open final, defeating him in a third straight slam championship (Nadal had been 10-2 in slam finals prior to the Serb's run).

The two met in Paris for a record fourth straight slam final. While Nadal had spent the past two weeks quite possibly playing better than he EVER has there (and he was already a six-time champion with two title runs under his belt in which he failed to drop a set), Djokovic had been forced to escape from more than one Houdini-esque predicament, including a two-sets-to-love hole against Andreas Seppi in the 4th Round, and four match points against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals. No matter their paths to the championship match, both were on the cusp of history, with the Spaniard putting the final touches on a far-from-over career that may already rank him as the best clay court player in tennis history, and the Serb trying to accomplish what both Nadal (at the '11 AO) and Federer ('06 & '07 RG) had failed to when they'd had the chance -- win a fourth consecutive grand slam title, a feat not pulled off by any man since Rod Laver in 1969.

After having been dominated at times last spring by Djokovic, even on clay, Nadal was coming off two EuroClay wins over him this season, though one had come in the wake of the death of the distracted and grieving Serb's beloved grandfather. But any previous results were thrown out the window when play began in the final, a match which would play out in three distinct acts.


Played under a threat of rain that would soon become far more than that, the opening act of the men's final saw Nadal's '12 Paris dominance carry over. He broke Djokovic's serve in the opening game of the match, then did it again to go up 3-0. But when Nadal's 1st serve temporarily abandoned him, world #1 Djokovic found his rhythm. He won ten of thirteen points in one stretch en route to winning three straight games, including two breaks of serve (after Nadal had been broken just once in his previous six matches).

But Djokovic simply wasn't able to maintain his game once Nadal's shaped up. He double-faulted to break himself in Game #7 as the court conditions continued to get heavier in the constant fall of light rain. Nadal won the 1st set 6-4 (perhaps foreshadowing the end, as Nadal was 108-1 when taking the opening set in slam matches), then saw the storyline repeated in the 2nd. Once more, Djokovic double-faulted to break himself in the first game. He got back on serve with a break for 2-2, but again he was broken in Game #7 (always THE most important game of a set, at least according to the great Arthur Ashe oh so many years ago) to fall behind 4-3. On the way to the changeover area, Djokovic angrily struck his chair with his racket, smashing a hole in the middle of the Perrier signage wrapped around its bottom. After taking the 2nd set at 6-3, a brief rain delay saw the players taken away to wait off court, but once they returned, Nadal quickly went up a break in the 3rd. He led 2-0.

After seeing his '12 RG life flash before his eyes and living to tell about it twice over the past week, Djokovic's two-sets-and-a-break deficit against inarguably the greatest claycourter of his generation was precisely when the Serb couldn't resist the urge to try to turn things around.


With Nadal more and more put off by the worsening court conditions, and Djokovic finally fired up, the Serb charged back, breaking Rafa's serve for 1-2, 3-2 and 5-2. He took the set at 6-2, ending the Spaniard's 21-set streak in Paris and putting together a stunning eight-game streak of his own. Nadal, ineffective and falling behind, was looking more and more like he could be the next to fall victim to a monster Djokovic comeback (he'd come back from 2 MP vs. Federer in the '11 U.S. Open SF on his way to the title). He not-surprisingly chose then to complain to anyone who would listen about the match continuing as the rain began to get heavier. Finally, right on cue after Nadal had held serve to end Djokovic's run, the tournament referee stopped play at 2-1, ultimately ending play for the day.

As it turned out, Djokovic's last best chance for a "NoleSlam" went with it.


As the players returned to Court Chatrier at 1pm Paris time, Roland Garros saw its first men's final play on a Monday since 1973. After the rain the wet clay had played havoc with the bite on Nadal's topspin strokes on Sunday, he came out like a house afire in the initially-dry conditions today as, once again, Djokovic had a difficult time getting his game in gear. The Serb netted a high-bouncing forehand attempt to give Rafa a break point right out of the box. A mid-court bouncing net cord shot provided the Spaniard with a perfect set-up for a passing shot to break and level the set at 2-2. Nadal never looked back. He allowed just one point on his first three service games.

At that point, it started to rain again... but Monday's weather wasn't going to provide a long break that might allow Djokovic to get his game together. And Nadal wasn't going to LET him, either.

Nadal held at love once gain for 5-4. After a brief wait while a rain-soaked cloud made its way over the court, the sun actually came out during the match's final games. Djokovic got to 30/30 on Nadal's serve in Game #11 when the chair umpire didn't examine the mark of a Djokovic shot on the right sideline because the Spaniard had not been demonstrative enough during the point to signal that he was challenging the line call (though he DID actually turn away from the ball after he hit it back to the Serb). It seemed to provide an opening for another change in match momentum. But it didn't matter. Nadal held with a lob to take a 6-5 lead.

Trying to hold to force a tie-break, Djokovic faced his fifth match point of the tournament following a Nadal forehand winner. Then, for the third time in the match, Djokovic double-faulted on match point to hand the set -- and title -- to Nadal at 7-5.

Taking six of Monday's nine games, and losing just three points on serve during the action, Nadal won the match 6-4/6-4/2-6/7-5 to claim his seventh career crown at Roland Garros, breaking his tie with Bjorn Borg as the most-honored man in Paris in the Open era and firming up his career RG legacy with yet another layer of cement.

The Immovable Object that is Nadal on the terre battue may yet succumb in Paris to an Irresistible Force -- whether it be named Novak, Father Time or someone we've yet to meet. But that one day was not today. Nor was it yesterday. In fact, that day may not arrive anytime soon in the foreseeable future.

...Nadal and Djokovic have now combined to win the last nine slams, a streak second only to the 11-slam run by Nadal and Roger Federer from 2005-07 for the longest in ATP history. Combined, that three-headed monster of the men's tour has now claimed 28 of the last 29 slams, and 30 of 32.

...while Nadal's seventh RG title breaks Bjorn Borg's men's Open era tournament record, he IS still chasing a few people if he's going to be called the "winningest" player EVER in Paris. A few still in his sights:

* - Nadal has 52 career RG match wins, good for fourth on the all-time men's list. He could become #1 in 2013, as he's just four wins behind Guillermo Vilas' record of 56. Thing is, That Guy Named Roger (54 wins) will likely get to the mark first, and might end next year's RG in -- or tied for -- the top spot even if-and-when Rafa wins title #8.

* - Steffi Graf is actually the ALL-TIME match win leader, with 84. Nadal's needs four more title runs, plus a few more rounds, to catch her.

* - While all the talk was about Nadal breaking Borg's Open era mark with title #7, he's actually TIED with another player from most titles during the period: Chris Evert. I'm a little surprised that fact didn't come up during the last two weeks. Well, maybe I'm not REALLY surprised.

* - Also, if you want go WAY BACK, Nadal isn't even actually the ALL-TIME title leader. That'd be Max Decugis, a Frenchman who won eight pre-WWI titles, although it WAS when Roland Garros was still restricted to French club members. But still. If only Bud Collins -- still recovering from his injury from a fall last summer -- had been in Paris, maybe Monsieur Decugis would have gotten a little attention.

16...Roger Federer, SUI
14...Pete Sampras, USA
12...Roy Emerson, USA
11...Bjorn Borg, SWE
11...Rod Laver, AUS
16...Roger Federer
2...Lleyton Hewitt
1...Juan Martin Del Potro
1...Juan Carlos Ferrero
1...Andy Roddick
[won slams on hard, clay & grass courts]
Andre Agassi
Jimmy Connors
Roger Federer
Rafael Nadal *
Mats Wilander *
* - multiple titles on all surfaces

18...Bob Bryan, USA
16...Roger Federer, SUI
14...Leander Paes, IND
13...Mike Bryan, USA
12...Mahesh Bhupathi, IND
9...Max Mirnyi, BLR
9...Daniel Nestor, CAN
7...Nenad Zimonjic, SRB
5...Novak Djokovic, SRB

[men & women]
Andre Agassi, USA [3-1-1-2-1-1]
Steffi Graf, GER [4-6-7-5-5-1]
[active players close]
Novak Djokovic, SRB [3-0-1-1-1-0] - needs RG & Olympics
Roger Federer, SUI [4-1-6-5-6-0] - needs Olympics #
Rafael Nadal, ESP [1-6-2-1-0-1] - needs YEC
Maria Sharapova, RUS [1-1-1-1-1-0] - needs Olympics
Serena Williams, USA [5-1-4-3-2-0] - needs Olympics #
# - S.Williams & Federer have won Olympic Doubles Gold

83...Todd Woodbridge
80...Mike Bryan #
78...Bob Bryan #
78...John McEnroe
78...Daniel Nestor #
78...Tom Okker
# - active

109...Jimmy Connors
94...Ivan Lendl
77...John McEnroe
74...Roger Federer #
64...Pete Sampras
62...Guillermo Vilas
62...Bjorn Brog
60...Andre Agassi
57...Ilie Nastase
49...Boris Becker
47...Rod Laver
74...Roger Federer, SUI
30...Andy Roddick, USA
29...Novak Djokovic, SRB
28...Lleyton Hewitt, AUS
22...Andy Murray, GBR
21...Nikolay Davydenko, RUS
16...Juan Carlos Ferrero, ESP
14...David Ferrer, ESP

All for now.

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