Djokovic came onto the clay in great form, winning the last hard-court Masters in Miami, but he was hit, mid-week, by the death of his grandfather and, despite two subsequent wins, he seemed to lack a little of his usual edge.
Nadal came into his favourite tournament on his favourite surface as seven-time defending champion, but he not only faced the prospect of his 2011 bete noir in the draw but had also been forced to withdraw from the Miami semis with a recurrence of knee tendonitis.
Djokovic faced the big-hitting Czech, Tomas Berdych, who played powerful, all-court tennis to beat No3 Andy Murray, while Nadal faced the baseline expert, Gilles Simon, who beat No4 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
In both cases, the top seeds had lost only once to their perhaps unexpected opponents, though neither had played them on clay. But on this occasion, they also had to overcome the kind of conditions that all tennis players dread: the invasive combination of wind and dust.
Certainly based on the Czech’s outstanding performance against Murray, the first of the semis between Djokovic and Berdych looked the more compelling. The Serb faced a match point in his World Tour finals round-robin match against the Czech last November and, in the previous Dubai, he lost the first set before Berdych retired with injury.
But straight away, Berdych was on the back foot as his first serve failed to make the impact it had against Murray: He struggled to place even 50 per cent of deliveries into the box.
He faced a break point in the second game, then it took him seven and half minutes to hold the fourth. Again in the sixth, he faced a break point when a net cord took his forehand wide and, serving into the sun, he made his first double fault. Djokovic led 4-2.
Out of the blue, though, Djokovic played a loose game—finding the net twice—to concede a love break and, with it, a broken racket. With the score back on level terms, Djokovic’s concentration faltered again in a succession of unforced forehand errors and a plummeting first-serve rate. It took four attempts, but finally Berdych broke the Serb again with a forehand winner. He fought off one more break point on his own serve before finding a welcome ace—his first of the match—to seal the set, 6-4.
But if he was to hold sway in the second, Berdych needed to discover his serving of the day before. Barely 40 per cent of first deliveries had found their target, and that meant he could not make his aggressive forays to the net.
Berdych had the chance for a quick strike with two break points in the opening game, but Djokovic held and lifted his arms aloft in celebration of his first game in the last five—and it became a turning point. He hit back at Berdych with his full range of shots: a drop shot winner, a return of serve winner, and a lob-volley combo on break point.
Berdych needed to capitalise on another poor service game and two break points from the Serb but he failed to do so. He was now 3-0 down, and things were not getting any easier.
A brisk wind started to lift the clay dust and take hold of Berdych’s high ball toss, and uneven patches in the court surface added still further to the distractions. Amidst all this, the Serb maintained the greater consistency and he held onto his advantage to serve out an erratic set, 6-3.
With just 13 winners between them in the set—and twice as many unforced errors—the match was delicately poised after precisely two hours, 65 points to 64. And yet Djokovic looked the dominant man. Going into the decider, he found a little more rhythm, a few more first serves and a touch more composure. All of which translated into an opening game against serve very much in the No1 mould.
With the Berdych serve still floundering well below 50 per cent, Djokovic broke a second time, opened a 4-0 lead, and went on to take set and match, 6-2.
For Frenchman Simon, the semi-final challenge was formidable indeed. Nadal took to court on a 40-match, seven-title unbroken run stretching back to 2003, and during that streak, he had lost only six sets. Now, he had in his sights a 30th Masters final, while for Simon, this was his first Masters semi-final on clay.
But in Simon, the Monte Carlo Country Club—which sits just across the border in France—had a player they would cheer in equal measure to the champion. And he quickly earned their cheers.
Simon stood toe-to-toe with Nadal through six games and long, pulsating rallies of corner-to-corner tennis. In the seventh game, a couple of sizzling shots down the line from the Frenchman outpaced even Nadal’s footwork and Simon earned two break points. The first chance was on his racket but he hit an easy forehand volley straight back to Nadal. On the second chance, he pushed a drop shot too short, and the door was slammed shut.
The scare served only to sharpen Nadal’s focus and he upped his level to force a couple of errors from Simon for two break points of his own: a 27-stroke rally later, and the Spaniard led, 5-3.
Now Nadal had his strut, had his man pinned back and had the first set, 6-3. Despite the accuracy and placement of Simon’s ground strokes, the speed and defence of Nadal were up to the continuing assault from the Frenchman. Adding still more weight and variety to his forehands, the Spaniard gained an increasing edge, and he broke Simon in the third game.
Even then, the slight figure of the 27-year-old Frenchman did not give way. With admirable energy and aggression, Simon earned a break point back in the very next game—and then another, and another. But Nadal found the kind of replies that sap the spirit: dying drop-shots, swerving serves and a snuffing out of chances.
The crowd tried to lift Simon again when he earned yet another break point in the sixth game. Nadal saved it, but an inspired 32-stroke rally gave Simon a second. In the end, it seemed almost taunting—carrots proffered only to be snatched away.
Nadal took the match, 6-4, but it was a final score-line that did little justice either to the intensity or the quality of the tennis. Simon had perhaps never played a better clay court match and Nadal may well be grateful that his game was so well sharpened for the next battle.
For now the defending champion will face Djokovic for a 31st time and their eighth straight final in little more than 12 months.
And Djokovic has won all the previous seven—even those on clay.
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BIOGRAPHY: Marcus Rashford