French Open: The infinite sadness of watching Rafael Nadal lose at Roland Garros

Tennis, Viewed [ 1064 ] , Rating :
Deepak Mandal, Star Live 24
Thursday, June 4, 2015
Published On: 17:20:20 PM

Disclosure: I am a Roger Federer  fan and I would like nothing more than watching Rafael Nadal lose. But even by that yardstick, the only emotion I felt while watching Novak Djokovic ruthlessly dump the Spaniard out of the French Open was one of infinite sadness.

This was the red clay. This was Paris. This was the French Open where Nadal's record read a silly 'wwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwLwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww' before yesterday. He wasn't supposed to lose like this. Not in three straight sets. Not on this court. Not 6-1 in the third.

Many times in the past Nadal has come into the French Open looking and feeling under par. Many times he has looked vulnerable. Many times he has been less than 100 percent. But all those things would melt into nothing the moment he stepped onto the red clay -- he had an aura; the same kind that Pete Sampras had at Wimbledon; the kind that convinced you he could win matches even while hobbling -- unless of course, they ran into a Richard Kraijeck or a Robin Soderling.

So even though Nadal's record in the lead-up to the tournament was sketchy, there was hope. Even though Djokovic's record (39-2 for the season, 27 wins on the run in the lead-up to the tournament was stunning), there was hope (for Nadal fans) simply because this was clay, this was the French Open.

The first three games seemed like a bit of a blur. Djokovic got away... quickly... building up a 4-0 lead before the crowd had even settled in their seats. But at this point, no one seemed worried. Nadal had a way of fighting back -- the crowd had seen it been done many times before.

Then, the Spaniard tightened his game, pumped up the volume on the vamos cries and worked his way back in. The 4-0 start dissolved into thin air and became 4-4. It was all to play for and this is what the crowd had come to watch.

For a moment, it looked like the battle had been joined. There were visions of the 2013 semi-final that arose -- a match that Björn Borg dubbed as the greatest clay court match ever; a match that John McEnroe called one of the top five matches of all time; a match that Nadal called the greatest win in his career, and Djokovic... the greatest loss in his career.

Nadal is the kind of player you want to keep down. It he gets stuck in, he rarely ever lets go. And with his comeback in the first set, it seemed like Djokovic would be forced to play his best tennis to just stay in the match. The left-hander also started using the drop shot -- usually from his backhand side -- to increase the variation in his play and plant a few more doubts into the Serb's mind.

There are few finer sights in tennis than Djokovic and Nadal going hammer and tongs at each other. The 2012 Australia Open final, which stretched to a remarkable 5 hours and 53 minutes, was like a boxing match where the last man standing won. It was brutal stuff -- the kind that only super-fit athletes could churn out. Could this top that?

Djokovic hung in there and then clinched the first set 7-5, on the sixth set point. It had taken him 67 minutes to win it -- multiply that by five sets and we top the five hour mark. Almost no one reckoned that the players would be out of there in another 79 minutes.

The second set was close to begin with -- it stayed on serve but Djokovic was managing to keep Nadal on the back foot. One of the ways to judge Nadal's confidence over the years has been to see how deep he is in the back court. The Serbian's penetrating groundstrokes kept him deep and Nadal's struggle on his service games was a clear sign of trouble.

The world No 1 finally broke Nadal's serve in the eighth game; on his second break point. He closed out the second set well.

And then the unthinkable happened.

Djokovic was leading from the front, going for his shots — and Nadal's spirit seemed to break. The third set lasted just 33 minutes. It was a painful illustration of what injuries and a loss of confidence can do to our greatest champions; Nadal didn't just look human; he looked beaten.

Djokovic, on the other hand, was as respectful as he could be: "If you need a reminder of who Rafael Nadal is, look at his career stats."

And while that is true, the distorted, pained expression on his face in the last set told us all we needed to know about Nadal on the day. But this isn't the end. This can't be the end.

Nadal started one of his earlier press conferences by saying, "First of all, I am from this planet." It was an obvious reference to all the accolades that have been piled on to him.

But yesterday, while shaking his head a lot, all he could say was that Djokovic was better.

"In general, Novak was in control most of the time. He was better than me. And that's it. When the opponent plays better than you and is in better shape than you, it can happen. That's it."

"I'm gonna fight. I lost in 2009 (to Robin Soderling) and that was not the end. I lost in 2015 and this is not the end."

Amen to that. This isn't how it can end. Not for Nadal... not at Roland Garros.


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