Rafael Nadal def.  Novak Djokovic 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4
Once, years ago, I heard a horse racing enthusiast quip that races aren’t really decided by the horses, or even the trainers or the jockeys, and certainly not by the owners, but by the finish line. Give that line a little nudge one way or the other, and you’ve crowned a new winner. Saturday, at Belmont Park, this moveable finish line was too far away for California Chrome, the horse trying to become the first to claim American horse racing’s illustrious Triple Crown since Affirmed won it back in 1978. It’s been a decade since a horse has even come close. In 2004 Smarty Jones won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, only to finish a heartbreaking second-place at the third and final race, the Belmont Stakes.
Racing is hard on horses, even when they’re bred for it. Three months after his Belmont loss, at the ripe old age of three-years-old, Smarty Jones retired due to chronic bruising on his ankle bones, and has been happily siring expensive children ever since. The same spring that Smarty Jones first stood stud at Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Kentucky—reportedly occupying the stall that once housed legendary Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew—Rafael Nadal won his first French Open. It’s uncanny to consider how long a single player has been winning at one of the world’s most elite tennis tournaments. As of today, the King of Clay’s record on the Roland Garros dirt stands at a whopping 66-1. Even if it turned out that all of the bones in his body are bruised and Nadal had to retire tomorrow, his record cannot be broken in less than a decade. It’s not difficult to imagine it standing forever. The finish line keeps moving, and—somehow— the Spaniard keeps crossing it.
Unlike the five-set 2013 French Open semifinal contest between the then World No. 3 Rafael Nadal and World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, today’s match was not an unforgettable thriller. (It was, however, a good sight more engaging than last year’s final, even without the glow of the roadside flares.) Lasting four sets and three-and-a-half-hours, Nadal’s defeat of Novak Djokovic revealed no new secret plan of attack from either player. Apart from a fistful of break points near the end of the first set, the match wasn’t especially well-stocked with dramatic tension either. Each set was won by the man who played the better set, and that man was not difficult to identify. The match did feature its fair share of those time-warping ‘amazing gets’ and brilliantly angled forehands (Nadal) and backhands (Djokovic) that we’ve come to expect from the Rafole mash-up, but it also offered plenty of nervous errors and gloomy low patches. (In a combined effort, the world’s top two tennis players racked up 82 winners, 92 unforced errors, and 24,830 ATP rankings points.)
For those entertained by impossible hypotheticals, today’s Roland Garros final made for good evidence that the best slam finals are often played in earlier rounds of the tournament, such as in last year’s semifinals, or this year in the first round, when the Frenchman Julien Benneteau lost to Facundo Bagnis 16-18 in the fifth. (By the by, if you’ve ever felt sympathy for Julien Benneteau—a 32-year-old player who has contested nine ATP finals and lost all of them—you’d do well to watch his reaction to winning Saturday’s doubles title with countryman Edouard Roger-Vasselin.) As commentator Mary Carillo put it, both Nadal and Djokovic were “feeling the burden of the pressure,” which is akin to feeling the pressure of the burden, or even the pressure of the pressure. (The burden of the burden?) However you describe it, the feeling is a heavy one, and can drag a tennis match down with it.
Rafael Nadal, as we all know, was trying to defend his eighth Roland Garros title by winning his ninth, while Novak Djokovic was trying to earn his seventh slam title and complete the illusive Career Grand Slam. Aside from feeling the pressure, both men were, at one time or another during the match, feeling plain bad. Djokovic was in ill-humor, by which I mean his tummy appeared to be filled with nothing but bile, as was demonstrated to television viewers in an (unnecessarily) extreme slow-motion close-up shot at the beginning of the fourth set. [So etched in my mind was the image of the Serb vomiting bubbles onto the terre bateau, that I was startled to learn from John McEnroe’s interview of Nadal afterward that Rafa hadn’t even noticed Djokovic’s upset tummy. Such is the high-level of his internal-bloodless-warrior focus.] Furthermore, Djokovic is still tending to a wrist injury he earned some weeks ago, while Nadal has had kinesio tape running the length of his lower back for months. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn both men also suffer from chronic bruising on their ankle bones.
Nadal’s back didn’t appear to hamper his play at all through the first three-and-a-half sets. In fact, Rafa appeared to be moving and hitting more freely as the match wore on. There were patches in the second and third sets where two-thirds of the Spaniard’s forehands looked to be kicking off the dirt within two or three inches from whichever line was farthest from his opponent (according to my sophisticated measurements). And his body serves were actually hitting Djokovic in the body (which could not have been good for the tummy). But then, midway through the fourth set, Nadal’s back did seem to seize up—either that, or he was, as he seemed to say later, seized by a sudden bout of nervous body-cramping exhaustion. Whatever it was, it caused him to serve poorly, double-fault, and stuff up an overhead on his way to returning his early break advantage to Djokovic.
Then, two games later, after holding serve for 5-4, Rafa nearly caused himself grievous bodily harm with a vigorous, twisty fist-pump. His fans began to fear, and vigorously tweet, the likelihood of a fifth-set breakdown. But, despite almost upending himself on his way to his chair, Nadal’s body proved sound enough to win four of the next six points, enough to claim his ninth Coupe des Mousquetaires, his fourteenth major title. The Spaniard has now pulled even with Pete Sampras on the slam-title leader board, second only to Roger Federer.
Twenty-four hours earlier, back in Elmont, New York, California Chrome finished the Belmont Stakes in a dead heat for fourth place. Horse racing is a brutal sport for many reasons, one of which is that only one horse is celebrated in the winner’s circle. Finishing second means nothing. Fourth means even less. The leaden hush that fell over the thousands of fans who’d gathered excitedly to watch history make itself in under two-and-a-half minutes was eventually broken by the bitter sound one of California Chrome’s distraught owners, Steve Coburn. When asked to say a few words after the race, Coburn succumbed to an all-too-human impulse to rail against the unfairness of life. His horse had worked so hard to win back-to-back races, and had been upset in the end by fresher, better-rested beasts who hadn’t even run the earlier races. Non-contenders. Cowards. The rules, he said, at unfortunate length, ought to be changed.
But, a part of the essence of sports is to provide a way for us humans to process the joy and heartbreaks of reality—which rarely proffers anything approaching a level playing field. Nadal and Djokovic are defensive-minded players who excel, as Carillo noted, at hitting “big shots from bad positions.” Tennis is hard on the body as it is. The way Nadal and Djokovic play makes it even harder, which is why it’s so impressive to see them reaching big tournament finals over, and over again. I’m not sure if it’s a testament to skill, or heart, or will, or talent, or what—but it’s, well, a big deal. And, unlike Coburn, as much of their essence as they put into crossing the finish line first, neither man is less than gracious in defeat.
Today was no exception. Novak Djokovic must have been devastated to lose this final, especially since he has bested Nadal in the past four, one of which was on Rafa’s favorite surface. He must also have felt disappointed by the way it ended, with a double-fault. It’s a deflating point on which to finish a slam, even if it wasn’t an unfitting way to end that particular set of tennis. When Djokovic’s final serve was called long, the disappointment from the crowd in Philippe Chatrier was palpable. It was nothing like the grim silence that fell across Belmont Park when the well-rested Tonalist crossed the wire three horses ahead of the Triple-Crown-hopeful—Nadal does have some fans in Paris—but the crowd had thrown their full-throated support behind the Serb, and their man had fallen short. The match had come up short.
But—and this was one of those moments in sports that I love, sentimental as it might be—the crowd moved beyond the match and into the moment. When Djokovic was awarded his runner-up plate he was given a massive ovation. It seemed to go on forever, and it brought the Serb to tears. Today wasn’t his day, but, he’s given tennis almost all his days, and there have been so many good ones. It was nice to see this greater effort recognized, and made me think of how few words there are in the English language express the bittersweet nature of reality; living and losing are so closely intertwined. Maybe there are more of these words in French, and maybe Djokovic used some of them when he delivered his poised speech to an appreciative crowd in that same language.
The French crowd also gave Nadal—nine years their conqueror— a warm applause when he was awarded his trophy, complete with conveniently bite-able wings. After Novak Djokovic double-faulted on championship point, Rafael Nadal did as Maria Sharapova and Julien Benneteau had before him—he fell to his knees and he cried. It was an attitude of release as much as ebullience. Later, on the podium, before making his thank-yous in his signature admixture of English, French, and Catalan, Nadal listened to his national anthem and sobbed his heart out. This one clearly meant much. In words that gestured to the pressured burden, and burdensome pressure, of becoming a major champion fourteen times over, Rafael Nadal called the experience of winning his ninth Roland Garros title “unforgettable forever.” It’s a redundant phrase, but l like it. (Sounds like a perfect name for the next Triple Crown winner.) And for Rafa’s sake, I hope it’s true.
Cover Photo (Creative Commons License): Marianne Bevis