Nadal revels in 'suffering' to overpower Djokovic
"Reprise," say the French umpires at the end of every changeover. Yesterday Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic gave us a thrilling reprise of their most famous match – the six-hour Australian Open final of 2011.
There were two critical differences, however. For one thing, it was only the semi-final of the French Open, even though one suspects it will prove to have decided the ultimate winner.
For another, the result fell the other way. Where Djokovic ruled the blue planet of Melbourne, Nadal drew an extra cubit of inspiration from the red clay of Court Philippe Chatrier – a stadium where he has lost only one match. He finished the stronger to win 6-4 3-6 6-1 6-7 (3-7) 9-7 scoreline.
"I learned during all my career to enjoy suffering, and these kind of matches are very special," said Nadal, whose opponent in tomorrow's final will be fellow Spaniard David Ferrer.
"I really enjoy suffering, because what's harder is when I am in Mallorca last year and I had to watch these kind of matches on the TV." Nadal's fractious knees remain an issue. "There are weeks when I feel better and weeks when I feel a bit worse," he said.
Yet somehow he has maintained an almost superhuman level of fitness, even though he can only train for around an hour a day. That extra stamina proved decisive here.
From first point to last, Nadal kept scuttling back and forth across the baseline and unleashing his ferocious, turbocharged forehand for a series of crunching winners.
Djokovic found it harder to maintain a steady pressure, and virtually handed over an unopposed third set when his body suffered a dramatic power failure. Such donations usually prove fatal in this sort of contest.
Yes, Djokovic came back, creating fuel out of his own desperation. He edged the fourth set on a tie-break and even managed to go a break up at the start of the decider. But when you allow easy points and games to flow away from you, even if it is for only half-an-hour or so, you might as well be charging your opponent's batteries.
Andy Murray learned a similar lesson in Australia last year when he lost a 6-1 set to Djokovic and was always scrabbling for purchase thereafter.
Yesterday's encounter was full of surprise twists and dramatic moments – including the point deep in the fifth set where Djokovic rushed forward so eagerly to finish off a juicy short ball that he ended up caught in the net like tomorrow's plat du jour.
Despite Djokovic's best innocent face, umpire Pascal Maria ruled that he had touched with the net before the rally had ended, and credited the point to Nadal.
"Who knows which direction the match would have gone if I won that point," Djokovic said afterwards, wearing a stunned expression. "And I should have won it, in 99.9pc of cases."
Plenty of highlight-reel moments flowed during the closing stages, including a 'hot-dog' lob that Nadal played between his legs with his back to the net. But it was the backhand pass in the 16th and final game that the defending champion may remember with most fondness.
In an anti-climactic second semi-final, Ferrer thrashed an out-of-sorts Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-1 7-6 (7-3) 6-2.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)
French Open women's final, Eurosport/ITV1/4/Setanta Irl 2.0