For a moment, it looked like Novak Djokovic had finally figured out how to take down Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros. Then Nadal showed once more why he's the sport's most unsolvable riddle on clay.
Nadal won his record ninth French Open championship on Sunday, ceding the first set before taking the next three to defeat Djokovic 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4. The win is Nadal's fifth straight Paris title and ninth in the last decade.
Nadal has three more French Open wins than Bjorn Borg's previous open record of six. His ninth title allows him to hold the record for most overall wins at Roland Garros as well, overtaking eight-time amateur champion Max Decugis. No other man has ever won a single Grand Slam tournament more than seven times (Open era), giving Nadal another all-time record.
On a day where he further cemented his status as the greatest clay-court player in history, Nadal's run was nearly halted by his early mistakes. The Spaniard dropped the first set in uncharacteristically sloppy fashion, struggling against Djokovic's first serve and allowing him to take a break. With the Serb taking control for a 6-3 run in the first, the match began to mirror their last four head-to-head contests—each going Djokovic's way.
Starting with a critical second set, though, the reality of the match mirrored Djokovic's five previous attempts at unseating Nadal in Paris.
Down a set for just the second time all tournament, Nadal captured critical point after critical point to get himself back in the match. He won 44 percent of his second-set return points, earning two breaks—the second being the most critical after Djokovic had evened it up with a break of his own. It was a hard-fought slugfest that took an hour to complete, but Nadal's 7-5 triumph was enough to turn the tide.
Nadal strengthened as the match went along, a frustrated Djokovic faded and once again the world No. 1 dropped to his knees on his favorite court. He dominated through a 6-2 third set and then put Djokovic away by breaking him to take the match. In the closing set, Nadal only had two chances at a break but was able to come away with both.
In a decade of travels to the Parisian clay, Nadal has come away victorious in 66 of 67 matches. His 35 straight wins are a French Open record, with the only interruption being a fourth-round defeat to Robin Soderling in 2009.
Though his clay-court season was mired by shocking early exits, Nadal was never in true danger of being upset at Roland Garros. He won five of his seven matches in straight sets, only going down a set to Djokovic and 2013 finalist David Ferrer.
A slight bout with back soreness affected Nadal's serve, yet he elevated his game on Sunday once more and never showed a sign of weakness. He hit 44 winners, overcame 38 unforced errors and hit a series of beautifully struck returns. As the match went on, it was clear Nadal's forehand game was too much for Djokovic.
The match was a far cry from the last time these two played in Paris, a thriller that took Nadal 16 games in the deciding fifth set. Nor was it even a mirror of their 2012 clash, where Djokovic went down two sets early but got stronger as the match went along to force a tough fourth set. Every year, it seemed Djokovic was adding another piece to the puzzle as Nadal's armor on clay was slowly fading away.
"Knowing that I was that close to win against him the past two years gives me that reason to believe that I can make it this time," Djokovic told reporters prior to the final. "He's not unbeatable."
It just wasn't meant to be.
Djokovic made 49 unforced errors, losing the match in those moments of weakness. Championship point went to Nadal on Djokovic's third double-fault of the match. Visibly frustrated at points, Djokovic could be heard on the broadcast cursing at himself and at one point in the fourth set struck himself with the side of his racket. At one critical juncture, he needed a quick break to take a drink after vomiting on the playing surface.
One could understand his frustration.
Djokovic needs only one more tournament win, the French Open, to complete the career Grand Slam. Only seven men in history have pulled off the feat. Now, three years running, Nadal has prevented Djokovic from tennis immortality. In all, Nadal has defeated Djokovic four times out of the seven they've played in Grand Slam finals.
With 14 Grand Slam titles overall, Nadal moves into a tie with Pete Sampras for second all-time. Only rival Roger Federer (17) has more. But as Federer nears the twilight of his career and Nadal continues his second peak at age 28, one has to wonder whether the Swiss' record will be the next to fall. Nadal has two Wimbledon championships under his belt and took the U.S. Open a year ago; he'll be the favorite in both tournaments if healthy.
And again, Nadal's greatest challenger in those events will be Djokovic. The world No. 2 is in danger of going without a Grand Slam for the first year since 2010. His Australian Open streak was stopped at three in January, and he fell in the finals in London and New York a year ago. Djokovic has lost three straight Grand Slam finals for the first time in his career.
Djokovic can find comfort in the fact that future results are not dependent on the past. Well, except for at Roland Garros. Until proven otherwise, Rafael Nadal is the king of clay.
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