Saturday 17 March 2018

Nadal closes on all-time record after easing past Djokovic

Rafael Nadal celebrates after winning his men's singles final match against Novak Djokovic
Rafael Nadal celebrates after winning his men's singles final match against Novak Djokovic

Simon Briggs in Paris

Rafael Nadal clinched his ninth French Open and 14th career Grand Slam title with a brutal 3-6 7-5 6-2 6-4 victory over Novak Djokovic.

The world No 1 also became the first man to win five Roland Garros crowns in succession as the 28-year-old took his record at the tournament to 66 wins against just one defeat.

His tally of 14 majors equals the mark of Pete Sampras and puts him just three behind the all-time record of Roger Federer, who is almost five years older.

Sadly, the final point left a bitter taste. Distracted by rude interruptions from the crowd, Djokovic pushed his second serve long on match point down. As he dragged himself to the net for the handshake, he made a sarcastic thumbs-up sign to the stands.

This would have been a bleak moment for Djokovic, however it came. There is nothing he desires in the world more than the French Open, the one title missing from his set of Grand Slams.


Since 2011, his record at Roland Garros stands at 17-0 against everyone born outside Mallorca. But against Rafael Nadal it is 0-3, and that is the statistic that counts.

"It is not easy playing best-of-five against him in these conditions," a softly spoken Djokovic said afterwards, in what must count as the understatement of the tennis year.

Nadal's tennis was only B++ yesterday, by his own high standards. But his physical resilience was awe-inspiring on what was a sultry, sweaty, sauna of a day.

Is he the greatest endurance athlete in the history of tennis? There is a case for saying so. His most obvious rival would be Bjorn Borg, the man whose record of four successive French Open victories he equalled in 2008 and 2013.

Djokovic has now lost five of his past six Grand Slam finals. This vulnerability at the most pressurised moments was the weakness that his new head coach Boris Becker was brought in to address.

Yesterday, there were three key points that bore Becker's signature as Djokovic charged into the net behind serves that slid wide to the Nadal backhand.

He won the first two with neat stop-volleys. But on the third attempt Nadal slammed a backhand past him for a clean winner. Psychologically, this was a blow to the solar plexus.

At the end of the third set, which ended when he planted the simplest of volleys into the net, a demoralised Djokovic fixed his player's box with a grim, 30-second stare that said: "Why haven't you prepared me better for this?"

Yet it was his body, more than his tennis, that let him down. He admitted later that he had felt ill for several days and vomited a few times in the build-up to this match.

In fact, Djokovic looked to be on the point of vomiting early in the fourth set. Even Nadal could not help hunching over after many of the points, which achieved a punishing intensity on this 30C day.

As the champion posed for photographers after the match, he had to put the Coupe des Mousquetaires down because his right arm was seized by cramp.

The heat had acted as a third participant in the drama from the outset. Even in the 2hr 36min semi-final against Ernests Gulbis on Friday, Djokovic had struggled physically.

Yesterday, knowing that a long final would be his downfall, he came out determined to seize the initiative, holding his ground on the baseline even as Nadal peppered him with those throat-seeking, dive-bombing forehands.

At first the approach worked. Nadal was discomfited and discombobulated by the salvos of winners being fired from the far side of the net. He missed three examples of his favourite shot – the inside-out forehand – in the blink of an eye to give away the first set. But gradually he reasserted himself and the arm-wrestle tilted in the other direction.

Rather than becoming tentative on his forehand side, Nadal looked for the winner more and more often as the match went on.

This was not perhaps such a classic as the semi-final contested by these two players on Court Philippe Chatrier a year ago, but it could once again have a far-reaching impact on the rest of the season.

In 2013, Djokovic took a while to regain his mojo, while Nadal went on to claim a second major title in three months in New York. On the evidence of yesterday, he is not planning to relinquish his grip on the No 1 spot in a hurry. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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