The question on everyone’s lips—those watching from the grass of Queen’s Club in London and Halle in Germany, and a substantial number of the French who had left Roland Garros in the rain more than 16 hours before—was whether Novak Djokovic could hold onto the momentum and the break-of-serve that he owned when he left court the night before.
It was vital that he did both, for he was trailing Rafael Nadal by two sets to one. Another lost set and his dreams of making history, of being the first person in more than 40 years to follow in the footsteps of Rod Laver holding a full set of Grand Slams, would be over—perhaps for ever.
Djokovic’s problem was that the conditions were warmer and drier, which helped Nadal to regain the composure and the vicious top-spin that drained into the sodden dust in Sunday night’s fading light.
They began where they left off, Djokovic serving at 2-1, and an early run of testing, probing rallies drew errors from the Serb arm and winners from Nadal’s. It also brought a quick break, and Nadal rubbed in his advantage with a love hold.
The Serb needed to find his game quickly to contain the aggression and the forehand of a Spaniard who, serving first, edged—no, strutted—towards the finish line.
Now, though, the rain was falling again, but could it turn the tide in the Serb’s favour? Nadal held serve to love while the referee hovered, indecisive in the face of two scowling players. There was blue sky in the distance: They would stay and play.
When Djokovic hit the 50 mark for unforced errors to give Nadal a toe-hold in the 10th game, things looked bad for the Serb, but he took the initiative with deeper and wider strikes. As the sun burst through, they reached 5-5, and the tennis at last began to sparkle.
Both found the lines, tried a touch volley, threw in a defensive lob—and for good measure, the crowd threw in a Mexican wave.
But serving at 5-6, Djokovic hit two backhands long and Nadal tensed like a coiled spring to receive the next Serb delivery. He pounded three of his biggest forehands to earn a match point and the size of the task—resisted through so many ups and downs—proved too much for the Serb. A double fault brought a sad end to one of Grand Slam tennis’s more extraordinary finals.
There had been so much at stake, so many swings of the pendulum, such dramatic changes in fortune—not least the role played by the uncontrollable hand of weather.
Had these two record-bound men continued last night, had they returned last night, had Djokovic built on his momentum, had Nadal remained angry, things may have turned out differently—but they did not.
The most resilient player of them all, the unstoppable clay magician that is Nadal, won the day and at last eclipsed the remarkable Bjorn Borg with a seventh French Open title.
And in the end, who would deny him a celebratory hour in that late-to-the-party Parisian sun?
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BIOGRAPHY: Eric Bailly