Rafael Nadal has caused so many others sleepless nights at Roland Garros. This time, though, it was his turn to do the tossing and turning.
The bad weather. The unpredictable bounces. An opponent, Novak Djokovic, who couldn’t miss.
It all kept flashing through his mind. And it was compounded by the fact that when he walked back on the court Monday, he would be protecting a slim lead in the fourth set giving him very little time to get a wobbling game back on the rails.
Turns out, it was a case of losing sleep over nothing.
Nadal won six of the nine games played after the restart to close out a 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 victory over Djokovic, cementing his name in the history books with a record seventh French Open title, one more than Bjorn Borg. Nadal also prevented Djokovic from becoming the first man since 1969 to win four straight majors, the same way Roger Federer got denied in 2006 and 2007.
Also against Nadal. Also on the clay.
“My mental part, probably, on clay is one of the most important things,” Nadal said. “Because you have to run, you have to suffer sometimes, you have to play with more tactics, because you have more time to think, to do things.”
The end of this one played out the way seven of the last eight of them have at Roland Garros – Nadal sliding through the gritty court, reaching for balls nobody else could think of getting, punishing his opponent and pressuring him into “unforced errors” that were really no such thing. Djokovic had 15 during the fourth set.
It was quite a different scene from the evening before, when rain turned the court into a sheet of near-mud, the tennis balls got saturated and every advantage belonged to Djokovic. He ran off eight straight games. Who does that against Rafa on clay? And Nadal was scowling, arguing with the umpires, asking to have the match suspended because Roland Garros was playing more like an unkempt public court after a storm than one of tennis’ hallowed grounds on a historically important day.
The decision to stop, and not to resume later Sunday when the rain stopped and there was still light available, might have been the turning point in the match.
“I said, ‘Good, we got lucky. If we hadn’t stopped, we were going home,’” said Nadal’s uncle and coach, Toni Nadal.
Djokovic thought the same: “It’s unfortunate,” he said, “because I think I was playing better and I was feeling really well on the court.”
Djokovic needed one more win to join Don Budge and Rod Laver as the only men to win four straight major titles. Instead, he fell to 0-4 against Nadal at the French Open. He saw the task that lies ahead but also appreciated what he’d done.
“These matches make you feel like all the work that you put into it is worth it,” he said. “You’re living for this moment to play finals of any Grand Slam, and sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.”
After the win, the conversation quickly turned to whether Nadal is now the greatest clay court player ever. Nadal himself doesn’t like getting drawn into the “greatest this,” “greatest that” discussion. “I’m not the right one to say that,” he said.
Others certainly will.
“Well, he has to be now,” said Mats Wilander, who won here three times and presented the trophy to Nadal. “I mean, you can never compare eras. But, yeah, I think the players that he’s up against are better on clay. They’re more consistent than the ones Borg was up against. Playing Roger Federer in a bunch of finals. Now Novak, No. 1 in the world. Yes, yes, absolutely. The seven here makes a big difference.”
Those seven go along with eight at Monte Carlo, seven at Barcelona, six at Rome and an overall 254-19 record on the surface.
But while the numbers get gaudier, the tennis world moves on to the grass at Wimbledon, which is where Djokovic started his string of three straight Grand Slam wins last year, beating Nadal in all three finals.
“I don’t have that chance to play in my favourite court the rest of the season,” Nadal said. “That’s the thing. The calendar says we only have this period of time on clay, and I don’t have more chances to play on clay.”
The rest of the tennis world should rejoice at that.
But if playing on clay was supposed to make the 2012 final a no-stress walk through the park at Roland Garros for Nadal, somebody forgot to give him that message.
Nadal said the first time he felt confident Monday, in the hours before the final act played out, was three minutes before he walked on the court.
“Because for the rest of the time I was a little bit too nervous, more nervous than usual, probably, for the situation,” he said.