Nadal defeats Djokovic in 4 sets to win 9th French Open title

June 8, 12:48 PM

When a competition ends with both winner and loser in tears, it tells you something about the emotional toll of the fight. The tears don't seem to speak so much to the relative joy or sorrow of victory or defeat. They are something more like tears of relief. Win or lose, the war is over; we can all go home.  

Rafael Nadal prevailed 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 over Novak Djokovic in the French Open final on Sunday. It was the sort of cruel and barbaric match that makes your muscles ache just watching it, the kind we've come to expect anytime the planetary forces of the two best tennis players in the universe come into each other's orbit. And yes, when it was over, both men's eyes were moist. 

Djokovic needed a little push from the crowd, who basically refused to stop cheering him until they saw him squirt a few. (Even if reactions to him were mixed throughout the match, the fact that Djokovic can inspire this kind of reverence, after being treated for years as the Big Four's impish little brother, is a story unto itself.) Nadal needed only to hear the first bar of the Spanish national anthem, and let the realization that he'd just claimed another piece of history wash over him. 

After beating Nadal in the Rome finals before this tournament, Djokovic was actually considered a slight favorite coming in. He'd proven he could beat Nadal on clay, while Nadal was looking more vulnerable on the surface than he had at any point in recent memory, with early losses in both Monte Carlo and Barcelona. But Roland Garros does something different to Nadal. It isn't just another red-clay venue; the air in Court Philippe Chatrier basically functions as his performance-enhancing drug. When he obliterated Andy Murray in the semis, you suddenly knew who the favorite really was. 

Still, the thinking went that Djokovic would be hungrier. Nadal had already won more championships here than anyone is ever likely to win. Djokovic, despite his ever-improving clay-court game, despite having bested Rafa in multiple finals on the dirt, remained empty-handed. Nadal, you figured, simply didn't have as much to play for. This match just proved once again that wondering about his competitive fire is a fool's errand. 

It was Djokovic who came out looking stronger. In the first set, Nadal couldn't get much going with his forehand, which is the rough equivalent of a thoroughbred not being able to get much going with its legs. He wasn't striking cleanly, sent a bunch of shots sailing past the baseline, and Djokovic capitalized to grab the set. 

The second set, in many ways, proved to be the most important of the match. Nadal still didn't look quite right - in truth, neither player looked to be operating at 100 percent physically - but he did just enough to stay on top of Djokovic, until he finally started to feel comfortable. He handed back an early break, but broke back when it counted, pouncing on Djokovic's second serve to steal the set and take a ton of wind out of his opponent's sails. 

That momentum carried into the third set, where Djokovic was huffing and puffing, looking increasingly overwhelmed and overmatched. A spirited push in the seventh game - in which he saved six game points - to try get back on serve, seemed to take Nadal by surprise. But he ultimately came up short, dropped the game, and seemed ready after that to let the set go. 

There was a window in the fourth. It was brief, but it was there. A window of time when it looked like Djokovic could turn things around. Down a break and two games from defeat, he tapped into some impossible energy reserve, took advantage of a lucky break - a defensive lob that landed, with Nadal-like prescience, right on the baseline - and broke. He held his next serve easily. Then it was Rafa keeling over, wincing, looking exasperated, wanting it to be over. 

Nadal had to dig eyeball-deep to pull out his next service game, which went to two deuces. If Djokovic breaks there, the match almost certainly goes to a fifth set, and after that who knows what happens. But he punched a backhand long to lose the game and in a flash, his momentum seemed to evaporate. Suddenly he had to serve to stay in the match. All the pressure was back on his shoulders.  

It ended with a double fault. After three hours and 31 minutes of tireless brutality, it felt like it deserved a better finish. But that usually isn't how these things go. Neither of these guys "deserved" to lose. But, to borrow a phrase, deserve's got nothing to do with it. 

In the end, Nadal was better and he won. For the ninth time, he fell to the dirt on Philippe Chatrier. For the ninth time, he bit the solid silver of the Coupe des Mousquetaires trophy. Djokovic looked like he barely had the stomach to watch. Nadal looked, for a fleeting instant, apologetic. 

Djokovic had the crowd in his corner for much of the final set. Maybe they just wanted to see the match go the distance. But you also sense that the fans at Roland Garros are growing restless. They've seen the same man win nine of the last 10 championships here. They're likely ready to see somebody else hoist the trophy. The fact that they haven't turned on Nadal completely probably speaks to the amount of goodwill he's built up with fans over the years. But you wonder how much longer it can last. 

With his 14th Grand Slam overall, Nadal is now tied with Pete Sampras for second all-time. Djokovic, meanwhile, will have to wait at least another year to compete for the career Grand Slam. But those things hardly seem to matter. What matters is that the war is over. 

We can all go home. 

Feature photo courtesy of Reuters/Vincent Kessler

June 8, 11:57 AM

French Open Final: Nadal goes up a set on Djokovic, wins 3rd 6-2

June 8, 11:57 AM

Rafael Nadal seized control of the French Open final with a dominant third set, which he won 6-2. Djokovic looked increasingly exasperated as the set went on, throwing everything including the kitchen sink at Nadal, to no avail. 

Nadal broke on Djokovic's first service game, but the set ultimately turned on a wild seventh game, with Nadal still holding a break and Djokovic pulling out all the stops trying to get back on serve. It started out looking like a routine service game for Nadal, but after he went up 40-15, Djokovic surged back to take things to deuce. He missed a key backhand on the next point and for the second straight match responded by smashing his racket in frustration. 

He stayed tough though, and fought off four more game points, eventually earning himself a break chance. But Nadal's first serve was there for him when he needed it, and he got the ad back with two big ones out wide. He finally closed out the game with a tremendous defensive point, in which Djokovic had been well ahead but ultimately tried to go for too much and shoveled a backhand into the net. 

Looking gassed after that taxing but futile effort, Djokovic managed to get up 40-15 in the next game. But he made some fatigue-induced errors to let Nadal back in, and then watched the set slip away as his last forehand sailed long. 

If there's any good news to be taken from that set for Djokovic, it's that he was far more successful at attacking Nadal's second serve. He won two-thirds of those points, after losing more than 50 percent of them in the first two sets. The bad news is his own second serve is still getting stuffed back down his throat. He's won just 38 percent of second-serve points in the match.  

Does Djokovic have enough to build on? Can he recover in time to even things up again, or is the King of Clay simply too strong? We'll find out in the fourth. 

Third set stats

Player NadalDjokovic
Double Faults10
Break Point Conversions2 of 20 of 2
Unforced Errors514
1st Serve %75 %63 %
1st Serve Points Won74 %67 %
2nd Serve Points Won33 %33 %
Net Points4 of 73 of 6
Total Points Won3426

Feature photo courtesy of Action Images/Tony O'Brien

June 8, 11:05 AM

French Open Final: Nadal draws even with Djokovic, wins 2nd set 7-5

June 8, 11:05 AM

Rafael Nadal didn't look quite right in the first set of the French Open final, but he settled things down in the second and, with a break at 6-5, managed to pull even with Novak Djokovic at a set apiece. 

Nadal got the first break of the set with a magnificent receiving game at 3-2 up, with a couple of rousing defense-to-offense points that we weren't seeing from him in that uneven first set. Djokovic, to his credit, broke right back, aided by some tightness and a key double fault from Nadal. (Can anyone else but Djokovic can make Nadal tighten up at Roland Garros?) 

Djokovic started trying some different looks, moving into the short court, and, with Nadal playing well behind the baseline, pulling out a couple of very effective serve-and-volleys. Djokovic's shot charts from the first and second sets tell different tales.

Set 1

Set 2

It was a successful change of attack, as Djokovic won seven of nine points at net, and the two stayed even until Djokovic's service game at 5-6. 

But the Serb looked like he was starting to labor, while Nadal, as he tends to do, only looked to be getting stronger. He ended up with a ridiculous 18 winners in the set. At 6-5 he ripped some huge forehands, got a bad Djokovic miss, and stole the break and the set. It lasted exactly one hour. 

For his career, Djokovic is 35-0 in tournament finals in which he wins the first set. But it's a best-of-three from here on out, and with Nadal slowly gaining confidence and momentum at the venue where he's 65-1, don't expect that record to mean a thing. 

Second set stats

Player NadalDjokovic
Double Faults22
Break Point Conversions2 of 41 of 2
Unforced Errors1314
1st Serve %63 %67 %
1st Serve Points Won80 %69 %
2nd Serve Points Won50 %31 %
Net Points4 of 57 of 9
Total Points Won3932

Feature photo courtesy of Action Images/Tony O'Brien

June 8, 10:04 AM

French Open Final: Djokovic wins 1st set 6-3 vs. Nadal

June 8, 10:04 AM

With the way Rafael Nadal had been playing leading to up the French Open final (he'd won his last six sets 6-4, 6-0, 6-1, 6-3, 6-2, and 6-1, against two top-8 opponents), you got the sense that Novak Djokovic needed the first set just a little bit more. He took it, 6-3, in 44 minutes. 

The top two men's players in the world played each other to a draw for the first seven games, with no break points going either way. But with Nadal serving at 3-4 and 30-30, Djokovic uncorked a beautiful forehand down the line that game him his first chance. Nadal then sent a forehand wide to give Djokovic the opportunity to serve for the set. 

Djokovic seemed to tighten up, struggling to put in his first serve. But after saving two break points, he pounded in two clutch firsts, and closed out the set with a vicious inside-outer that Nadal could barely get a racket on. 

Nadal's patented forehand was a bit of a mess in the set, and he made six errors on that side, many of them ugly misses. We'll see how he responds in the second. 

First set stats

Player NadalDjokovic
Double Faults00
Break Point Conversions0 of 21 of 3
Unforced Errors88
1st Serve %71 %65 %
1st Serve Points Won65 %85 %
2nd Serve Points Won57 %45 %
Net Points2 of 33 of 4
Total Points Won2431

Feature photo courtesy of Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes