Nadal – how to make history out of clay

A thought about tennis before the football starts.

Rafael Nadal has just won his ninth French Open championship.  No man has ever won more than six and none have achieved five victories in a row.

The final match that set these records was between Nadal and Novak Djokovic. It was played in thick humidity and was as much about un-meltable mental strength as it was about skill.

I watched that battle on the red-clay rectangle in Paris from an elderly sofa on the far side of the Channel. I was hooked by the constant close-up of two champions fighting to hold their skills, their very structure, as the afternoon sun stretched them apart, atom by evaporating atom.

Djokovic and Nadal have been rivals for at least eight years. When their duels first began it was the Serb, Dojokovic, who found the wins but then the scores began to fall in the Spaniard’s favour. Recently personal and physical problems have damaged both men but the odds, either way, seemed fairly even when they stepped on to the court in front of the crowds last Sunday.

The first set fell to the 27-year-old Djokovic. His sinewed cool seemed tighter, more orderly. Opposite him Nadal poured sweat, looked the easier target. I could feel the Spaniard on court – his anxieties, his rituals, the power of his shots. He looked raw – dangerously exposed in front of the Serbian steel that claimed the first slice.

The heat was constant, burned through with sun and trapped by the crowds. Trilby hats shaded row after row; ladies fluttered behind fans; and commentary slumped to minimal. Djokovic, clear-eyed, slammed winners from beneath his baseball cap while Nadal, bandana tight around his dripping hair, was forced to dig deep for reply.

It became a hunt between brilliance at one end and a prowling defender at the other, with the crowd and the weather taking their toll.

The match, at a set each, slugged on shot by shot. Long packs of ice were wound around the players’ necks between points but even so, by half-way, the adrenalin had started to shrivel. Endurance took its place fighting off the lethargy of heat-exhausted limbs.

The game began to shift and losses to bounce into credit. Merciless cameras watched the Serb slip his grip on self-belief as the Spaniard forced it from him. There was nothing Djokovic could do. In the end he was not swept aside, he was simply eroded and his Grand Slam dreams turned to mirage.

The final score was 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 – three sets to Nadal – a victory that raises the thought that if he can win just three more major titles Nadal might catch Roger Federer’s record of 17.

It could all mean a real shake up for the strawberries at Wimbledon.

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