It took four hours and 37 minutes, but Rafael Nadal confirmed, once again, that he is the King of Clay.
In a marathon, five-set match against the world's No. 1 Novak Djokovic, Nadal continued his dominance on clay and at Roland Garros.
It wasn't easy, but Nadal is on his way to the finals, outlasting Djokovic by a score of 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 9-7.
Nadal admitted that he was part of something special, telling the New York Times that “It was an incredible match. To play against Novak is always something unusual. We push each other to the limit.”
The match started as a back-and-forth affair, with Nadal taking the first and third sets relatively easily, and Djokovic taking the second set without complications. The fourth set is where the action really heated up.
Down 5-4, and with elimination seemingly moments away, Djokovic pushed back to take it to a tiebreak, which he won fairly easily.
Momentum was on the Serb's side. Up 4-3, Djokovic had a chance for an easy winner. Instead, he pushed it wide, giving Nadal an opening. He admitted that that point was something he should've put away, telling USA Today that "I should have won that point in 99.9 percent of cases."
Perhaps rattled, Djokovic then missed two overheads, with the last one coming at the beginning of the final game.
From there, Djokovic lost three straight points and the match, Nadal once again fighting off any challengers to his throne.
The Spaniard has lost just one match at Roland Garros. He's won three straight French Opens and seven of the last eight.
That said, it wasn't a clean victory for Nadal. He had to fight back from the brink after giving up a two-set-to-one lead. His serve was inconsistent and benefited greatly from Djokovic's mistakes.
But Djokovic didn't lose because of a few mistakes. He hit some incredible shots at big moments.
How did Nadal do it? Unforced errors from Djokovic certainly helped. But this was a win based on guile, not skill. Let's face it—Nadal and Djokovic are pretty even in terms of skill. Djokovic is pretty good in his own right on clay, and, heading into this match, he had taken three of the last six clay matches against Nadal.
No, Nadal won because of his superior experience on clay, and his legendary competitive nature shining through.
Djokovic complained of the court conditions, telling the USA Today that "it got very dry and it was very slippery." His requests for the court to be watered down were not accepted.
Maybe that led to some of the uncharacteristic errors. Maybe that was why he let Nadal back in. We can't know.
What we do know is that the crown for the King of Clay still rests on Nadal's head, and after surviving this intense battle over one of the game's greats, it seems that the crown will forever be his.
Nadal is the best clay-court player of all time. And at only 27, it's not a stretch to say that his dominance will continue for a long time.
His thrilling victory demonstrated every tool in Nadal's toolbox. He can break serves, he can dominate—as he did in the third set—and can come back when the chips are down. He's a complete player.
And with Roger Federer out of the picture, it seems like it's now Rafa's time, it's now Rafa's game. The King of Clay struck again and now nothing stands in his way of another title.
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