First, a few stats:
Rafael Nadal’s total of nine French Opens is greater than the total number of Grand Slams won by former World No ones Andre Agassi (8), John McEnroe (7) and Jimmy Connors (8) in their entire careers.
Nadal’s record at Roland Garros is 66 – 1. In the ten years he has played in Paris, the only other person to win a title is Roger Federer.
His record at Roland Garros against the other two best players of his era – Novak Djokovic and Federer – is a perfect 11-0. Think about that. Federer and Djokovic have not been able to beat Nadal even once between them on the red clay of Paris.
Second, a few quotes:
“It's not impossible, but it's very, very difficult to stay with Rafa in this court, you know, throughout the whole match on the highest level of performance.” – Djokovic
“His forehand, especially with the conditions the way they were today, was incredibly hard to control the ball. As soon as he was inside the court, I mean, he was hitting the ball so close to the line. Yeah, he played great tennis” – Andy Murray
“Then Rafael started playing a lot better, making fewer mistakes, and then it’s like I threw in the towel. I don’t usually do this, but I thought, ‘I’m not going to be able to come back into the match’. I thought, ‘No, no, not against Rafa. He’s such a good player’.” - David Ferrer
If ever there was a year when Nadal was vulnerable, it was this one. He has a creaky back. He had lost three times on clay coming into the French Open, which last happened when he 17 years old. He had lost to Ferrer and Djokovic, both of whom he would face on the way to his ninth French Open title.
But while the opening few chapters of this year’s story may have been different, the ending was just the same – Nadal stood holding the trophy while a beaten opponent was left spent, to wonder about what might have been.
On this court, in this city, no one has found an answer to what Nadal calls his “inside force”.
The left-handed Spandiard struggled to counter Djokovic’s strategy in the first set. Djokovic has the ability to hit winners from both sides and he moved Nadal around with a surgoen’s precision. Nadal was pushed deep behind the court by the depth and accuracy of the *Serbian’s ground strokes and found himself rushing and pressing. There were surprising shanks and mishits as the defending champion looked for a way to counter his opponent.
Yet inexorably, almost inevitably, like the sun rising in the east, Nadal’s forehand found its range and a match that seemed tilted in Djokovic’s favour three-quarters of the way through the second set turned into an old familiar story.
What Nadal does is break his opponent’s will. He is both the the immovable object and the unstoppable force. He chases everything down, forces you not only to hit one more shot to beat him but to hit the perfect shot. On the other hand, give him an opening and that forehand pounds winners with the regularity of a machine gun.
His opponents know before they start, that nothing less than their absolute best will be enough. They know they will have to absorb the pounding of that relentless looping forehand for hour after hour, that they have to push themselves to the very edge, to dig deep in to whatever it is they are about just for the mere chance to shake off the shackles of Nadal’s iron will.
It is a test that no one (barring Robin Soderling) has been able to pass. It broke even a fighter like Ferrer, the bulldog of international tennis, who simply could not summon up the resolve to keep battling in the face of what he felt was inevitable. And it caused Djokovic to rant and rave at himself as he felt his grip on the final loosen and ultimately give way.
Greatness across sport comes with a fierce desire to win. In Nadal’s case, it is a refusal to lose. He cannot, and will not, concede to any foe. How much the title meant to him even fter eight others was evident from the emotions that spilled out of him after Djokovic’s final surrender – a double-fault on match point. So long as that hunger and desire drive him, so long as his mind is willingly and his body is able, the story isn’t likely to change, no matter what Djokovic and the rest try to do.
*This article incorrectly referred to Djokovic as Slovakian when he is Serbian. The error has been corrected.
Updated Date: Jun 10, 2014 09:17:22 IST