The only way to beat Rafael Nadal on the French Open clay is to play like Rafa Nadal.
That’s what Novak Djokovic did. He was a moving mirror of Nadal. He ran down what should have been winners. He hit incredible angled run-around inside-out forehand lazers from difficult positions. He hit a backhand winner at an improbable angle from the middle area behind the baseline. He hung tough, even when he looked finished in the fourth set.
But it still wasn’t enough to beat Rafa. Rafa is so dominant on the clay of Roland Garros, where he has won 7 titles, it almost seems that the clay is helping him. Djokovic even complained about the uneven clay to the umpire, late in the fifth set, but the umpire refused to roll it. Djokovic fell apart, and failed to win his first ever French Open.
He’s not done yet. The Nadal-Djokovic rivalry, in Paris, now seems set to overtake Nadal-Federer as the epic match-up of the sport. It was a wonderful match of ebbing and flowing, waxing and waning, between two marathon runners playing chess in a boxing ring. Djokovic seemed defeated at times, and so did Nadal.
Tennis fans wanted nobody to win. We wanted the match to go on and on, even if it meant postponing the other semi-final between Tsonga and Ferrer. We live for matches like this. They used to happen maybe once a year, at Wimbledon or maybe Flushing Meadow. But the styles of Nadal and Djokovic seem crafted to produce dramatic five-set wars of attrition. The games of both men are built for endurance, to grind you down until you fall apart late in the fifth set.
“Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t. That makes the sport very big,” said Nadal after the match. “I feel very special when I have a chance to play on this court.”