Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal finished their hard-fought, suspended French Open final Monday morning and it wrapped up in a blaze of incongruous sunshine. What was that doing there? The second week of the tournament had been stormy and undependable, rather like the mens’ play in their bitter, inconclusive match on Sunday. After almost non-stop rain and one brief delay, tournament director Stephan Fransson opted to suspend play, and Nadal was very irritated. “Why now?” he demanded rather illogically, since he’d fallen behind and Nole was on a scary, game-winning tear. But Nadal felt he’d gotten into this position because conditions were so unsatisfactory—his game wasn’t working.
It was a miserable place to break off. Nadal had dominated from the beginning, putting on a dazzling clinic of clay court aggression and seeming primed to tear his way through three straight sets. This was mildly disappointing for those who had hoped for a tight contest, but not at all displeasing to Rafa’s passionate fans. They’d all hoped for their hero’s return to his free-wheeling form. They longed for him to find enough fire to fight the ferocious, shark-like Djokovic.
That had been the suspense, beforehand. Who would “have it” and be “the one,” on the day? I’m not passionately invested in either of their fortunes but I was curious about the “it” factor. And it looked like Rafa had it, and was taking it, and Novak had no fire. Where was his bellowing war cry, his beating of his chest with a clenched fist after a big point, and all like that? It just wasn’t happening. He used to play with Rafa like a cat’s toy – on Sunday, he looked like the little plaything.
Then. (This is what’s great about top-level tennis.) In the third set, there was a Shift. Nole found a second gear. He sharpened up his shots – he decisively won a few points. That was all it took to unnerve Nadal – slightly. But that’s all you need to tilt the momentum fractionally in your favor, and use it to build on. Despite Nadal’s having two sets in the bag, Djokovic started to play well enough to have his opponent scrambling. It was just enough for Nole to wedge through a sense of advantage, to start to swing his psychic weight. He won the third set. Nadal looked hollow-eyed and stressed.
In the fourth set, he started to look pissed. He was mad because he was no longer winning easily, of course, but it felt like the wet weather was the culprit. He thought play should be suspended; Djokovic was settled in and starting to groove. He played more games in a foul temper; Novak won these games and his parents got to their feet, fists raised in support.
The whole thing felt dark, gritty, as black-edged as the lowering rain clouds. Rafa Nadal’s patchy facial hair was matched by the smattery wet clay that started to cling to him. He looked like he’d been on a 3-week military campaign in rough terrain; Djokovic, more naturally natty, looked less disheveled but still intense. Now that the outcome was in doubt, the fun went up for spectators, even as the miserable conditions increased the players’ angst. You know things are intense when the athletes’ parents get involved. Apparently Nadal’s uncle Toni called the umpire a bad name after he finally suspended play; Djokovic’s father complained that Toni had been giving his nephew coaching from the stands.
What a battle! But it was called, and everyone had to table their excitement for a night. The conclusion was, as these postponed conclusions often are, a complete reset of atmosphere and energy, to such an extent that the momentum of the narrative was completely lost. I couldn’t even find the match in the morning – NBC had hidden it somewhere on some distant cable station that I’d never heard of. By the time I hunted it down, it was almost over. Nadal had regained his focus and was winning. It ended with a fizzle: Djokovic double-faulted. It didn’t dampen Nadal’s joy or that of his ecstatic camp, or fans. But it was a bit of a fizzle all the same.
I’m not a particular fan of Nadal, but anyone who follows tennis has to appreciate his skills, work ethic and decency as a person, always on display in post-match interviews. All credit to him for managing a historic win under extremely difficult conditions.
Speaking of difficult conditions, I have to write this blog now under great time constraints so I don’t have time to write up the women’s match today – hopefully tomorrow.
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