French Open, Semifinal
(3) Nadal d. (1) Djokovic 6/4 3/6 6/1 6/7 9/7
The final of this year’s Roland Garros will be contested by Rafael Nadal, who defeated Novak Djokovic in five supple and eventually thrilling sets, and David Ferrer, who saw off Jo-Wilfried Tsonga without much trouble at all. For Tsonga it was a discouraging manner in which to confirm the unhelpful assertion that no Frenchman can win his home Major, thus making it seem far more prophetic than it should be. For the world number one it was a crushing way to fall short of his career Grand Slam. For Ferrer the joy of reaching his first Major final was immediate and overwhelming, even if it is destined not to last. Nadal has now won fifty-eight matches at this venue, from fifty-nine attempts, a statistic that is only enhanced by the consideration that today was only the second time in nine years he actually looked in danger of losing.
The early rounds at this French Open were a polyphonic snarl, with discernible melodies only emerging in the third and fourth rounds. Depending on one’s tastes, these tunes grew wearying or comfortingly familiar by the quarterfinals, although even then there remained plenty of novelty at which to marvel. How the pundits gaped when the round of sixteen featured eight single-handed backhands and an average age near thirty. These proportions were sustained even into the following round. The quarterfinals retained four of these venerable chaps, whom we could term atavistic throwbacks, except that they are clearly vintage models, some in surprisingly mint condition.
Normal service was soon restored: the losing quarterfinalists were in each case the older man, and in every case boasted a single-handed backhand. So much for the breath of fresh air, or even a wafting old breeze. The air remained all but unstirred. Indeed, had Federer defeated Tsonga the semifinalists this year would have been identical to last year. It seems that no matter the path we take, nor the conveyances employed, we somehow end up in much the same place. Like life itself, in which we shed the immortality of youth only gradually, the end point of Roland Garros now feels inescapable. To death and taxes we can once more add Rafael Nadal hoisting the Coupe des Mousquetaires. He has certainly earned it.
It all felt rather less inescapable when he trailed Djokovic by a break in the fifth set of today’s semifinal, having failed to serve the match out in the fourth. Djokovic had trailed for most of the match, even, or especially, in the sets he’d won. Indeed, it had been another of those matches in which to secure an early break in a set was to court disaster (although Djokovic, ever the gentleman, was the only one to see this courtship through to its bitter end). The Serb had recovered a break once in the second set, and twice in the fourth, but now found himself in the perilous position of leading the match for the first time.
Nadal’s firm service hold at 2/4 now seems decisive, although I don’t recall anyone saying so at the time. In hindsight, it granted him a measure of momentum in the next return game, although this wasn’t enough to force the break by itself. It required special assistance from Djokovic. At deuce Djokovic found himself at the net, Nadal well out of position, with an easy put-away. He put it away, but, in a moment that will probably inspire shuddering recollection in the small hours for years to come, fell into the net before the ball could be declared dead by waiting paramedics. Nadal helpfully pointed this out for the umpire, the stadium, and a global audience in the millions, but happily Pascal Maria was on his game, and awarded the pointed to the Spaniard. Djokovic protested a little, for form’s sake, but he knew as well as the rest of us what the rule is. It would have brought up a game point, which he might not have taken, but instead brought up break point, which Nadal didn’t take, either. Nevertheless, momentum had definitely shifted, and Nadal broke back a few points later.
The parallel to last year’s Australian Open final was clear, although the tracks ran in different directions. In that match Djokovic had been steaming to victory before a derailment in the fourth set saw Nadal extend it to a fifth. The Spaniard then broke early, before later handing it back with a loose shot. It’s funny how these things happen, but also suggestive that fortune will fall a player’s way when he’s operating in the seat of his power. Djokovic has now won as many Australian Opens as anyone in the Open Era, whereas Nadal’s record at Roland Garros is unmatched in any era. Or it could just be an amazing coincidence.
Parallel or not, today’s match was considerably better than the 2012 Australian Open final, which mostly proved that anything can be adjudged epic given sufficient length. This reflected Nadal’s approach. Whereas in Australia he’d opened aggressively before reverting to the endless rallying that largely defines this match-up – Djokovic is complicit in this – today he was superbly offensive. He struck 61 winners, and only 44 unforced errors. Winner stats can be misleading, of course, because they tell you little of how the winners eventuated. A winner coming at the end of a twenty-five stroke rally in which Nadal gradually pushes his opponent off the court several times is quite different to one struck immediately and audaciously. Today Nadal was audacious, and was clocking forehands and backhands early in rallies from neutral balls, and repeatedly catching Djokovic out. Given that Djokovic through long habit has grown accustomed to points unfurling in a certain way, this counts as a tactical victory for Nadal as well as a purely technical one. His forehand was struck early, hard and often up the line. His backhand held up well, and was often penetrating. There were only a few lapses, although for these he was invariably made to pay.
Djokovic’s early winners mostly came from one-two plays featuring wide serves to the deuce court, finished off with inside-out forehands. His inside-in forehand was frequently over-hit and the backhand up the line was either directed safely inside the sideline, or pushed rashly beyond it, a combination of tendencies that seriously reduced his capacity to prise apart the court quickly. Consequently he was obliged to build points, although midway through the first set he set about demonstrating that building a point isn’t necessarily the same as constructing one. Often the intent was muddled. The proven tactic of pounding on Nadal’s backhand until it leaks an error or a short response – the tactic that yielded such rich rewards in 2011 – was abandoned early, and only occasionally rediscovered. There was a widespread feeling that Djokovic had come out without a sufficiently clear plan, although Patrick Mouratoglou’s assertion that this cost Djokovic the match was reductive. The Serb did lead by 4/2 in the fifth set, after all.
Anyway, it was all building towards a fittingly titanic climax; Djokovic was holding repeatedly and masterfully to keep the match alive, while Nadal was in the happy position of knowing that under no circumstances would he have to serve out the match. As he has in the past on Philippe Chatrier, Djokovic was troubled by his footing at the back of the court; recall his constant slips in the semifinal against Federer two years ago. At the change of ends at 7/8 he and Pascal Maria engaged in a heated exchange about the need to water the court beyond the baseline, a request to which the umpire would not accede. Fatally unfocussed, Djokovic stepped out, put together his worst service game in hours, including two unusual forehand errors, and was broken to love. Suddenly, like that, the match was over. Nadal looked pleased; Djokovic, less so. It was not, it must be said, a classic finish.
Whether it was a classic match is a nice question, although it’s one that should only be answered in time. It’s with a stultifying lack of surprise that I note the demands for a more immediate assessment. Even while it was going on un-level heads were proclaiming it the match of the year. For some reason this is important, as though the quiddity of a sporting contest must be nailed down at the time, lest it be rapidly forgotten. It could be that I’m out of the loop, and there’s a substantial cash prize awarded to the first person to prove the greatness of a given tennis match. But if there is no prize, I can’t see the advantage in eschewing the advantage of a longer view. Ignoring one’s sense of perspective is a kind of conceit. Not for the first time, and nor for the last, I don’t see how it matters.
Nadal will now face Ferrer, whose feat of reaching the final without dropping a set will be largely forgotten when he loses three of them on Sunday. It’s conceivable that he’ll win one himself, but even that seems unlikely. Naturally he’ll give it everything: that’s the thing that he gives. But they played here last year, Ferrer gave it everything, and Nadal lost five games. That was a semifinal, and this is a final – Ferrer’s first at this level – meaning the gap in their respective experience has expanded to become an unbridgeable chasm. There is a sense in which the first of today’s semifinals was the real final. There’s an even more profound sense in which it doesn’t matter. Once again I find myself astonished by how much some people seem to think it does.
The initial outrage that Djokovic and Nadal might meet in a quarterfinal was quickly rendered irrelevant by the latter’s ranking and Andy Murray’s back. But even before the French Open began this discontent had already expressed itself via stentorian proclamations that any meeting before a final would constitute an offence unto the gods. This view has hardly lost steam now that the match has turned out to be as grand as had been hoped for. Twitter, tapping into this, flexed its comedic muscle by loudly wondering when the trophy ceremony would get under way. (Somehow this query didn’t grow funnier the more it was said.) I can understand why television executives maintain a strong opinion on the matter, since they’re obliged to experience tennis through the drearily smudged lens of ratings. For everyone else, it’s hardly cause for lamentation.
Lopsided draws have always been a factor, although they’ve grown rarer in the current era of top-four domination. At the 2001 Australian Open Andre Agassi and Pat Rafter duked it out for the chance to beat up Arnaud Clement (or Sebastien Grosjean) in the final. In 2005 at this very event Nadal and Roger Federer fought for the chance to thrash Mariano Puerta (or Nikolay Davydenko) for the title. In one important sense it worked out for the best: for all that the finals were anticlimactic – notwithstanding Puerta’s early challenge – the semifinals in every case had the potential to be great, and largely delivered. Perhaps I’m unique in this, but I’ll always take two intriguing matches followed by a foregone final over a pair of duds and a close final. Imagine for a moment that Nadal and Ferrer’s places had been swapped in the draw, a configuration that would almost certainly result in a Nadal – Djokovic final. Also assume that any match between the world number one and the defending champion was going to be pretty good, or at least very long. I’d rather have two chances at memorable matches on the last weekend than one. Of course it didn’t work out that way, which is a shame. (I blame Tsonga, although probably not as hard as he blames himself.)
Anyway, there is another notable advantage to having a final whose result is already known. The Tour de France discovered long ago the ceremonial value of making the last round a procession rather than a contest. Facing Ferrer for his eighth title will be for Nadal the equivalent of a cruise down the Champs-Élysées in the gold jacket. Everyone who’s done so insists there’s no feeling like it.