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Tennis

Nadal finds redemption against Djokovic in historic French Open

It could be argued that the men's final of the French Open was the most historically significant match of the Open era. As this two-act play unfolded, the overriding themes became frustration and regret. And suddenly it ended, the exuberant Rafael Nadal bounding into the stands for the most heartfelt, passionate celebration of his career.

That is the image, one hopes, for the history books.

In time, we'll forget the sight of Novak Djokovic shattering the wooden base of his changeover bench with an angry swing of his racket. It won't much matter that an exasperated Nadal flung a soggy tennis ball toward the chair umpire and chewed out the tournament director. The overnight intermission will become a footnote. Only the scores will matter: 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 for Nadal, the king of red clay, his tormented soul redeemed.

During the buildup to this titanic struggle, it was argued which bit of history carried the most weight: Nadal breaking Bjorn Borg's record of six French Open titles or Djokovic's fourth consecutive major, a unique but plausibly authentic Grand Slam. The sentiment seemed unanimous in the Serb's favor, and rightly so.

Remember, though, that Djokovic had never even reached the final at this event. Aside from the colossal achievement of setting his name alongside Rod Laver's in the history books (Laver was the last to win the calendar Grand Slam, in 1969), there was a cavernous hole in Djokovic's resume. He'll have to wait another year to take his chisel to Nadal's French Open castle, a fortress that now appears impenetrable.

No match of such import should end this way, with a day-after resumption of play and the conclusion of a fourth set that ended much too quickly. Within a half-hour of Monday's action, a steady rain threatened to turn the whole thing into a farce. Mercifully, the skies cleared. Nadal set about finishing off his 11th major title, moving him into a third-place tie with Borg on the all-time list.

The real struggle, though, was inside Nadal's head.

It's not that he was an underdog in this match. That would never be the case at Roland Garros, where his lifetime record stands at a stunning 52-1. Asked who he felt was the favorite heading into the tournament, Roger Federer said, "We're crazy to even talk about it."

Still, Nadal had to get past his mental block against Djokovic, who so thoroughly dominated this matchup last year with six consecutive wins. Nadal was so emotionally devastated by that turn of events, he spoke openly of his vulnerability. "For moments I do not believe 100 percent," he said after losing last year's U.S. Open final to Djokovic. "It's something natural, no? I'm a human and I have my doubts."

The path to redemption began at this year's Australian Open, where Nadal held a 4-2, 30-15 lead in the fifth set of a match that would last five hours and 53 minutes. He missed a crucial backhand right then, and Djokovic went on to win. But Nadal traced the defeat to his own failings, not the Serb's superiority. He rediscovered his thirst for long, punishing points, and his ability to finish them off at the slightest opening. Where there had been darkness, there now was light -- and Nadal's beloved clay-court season lay ahead.

Slowly, the pieces of reconstruction began to fit. Nadal dispatched Djokovic in the finals of Monte Carlo and Rome, but this wasn't quite the opponent Nadal remembered, Djokovic feeling lost and distraught over the death of his grandfather. Nothing would really be settled until Roland Garros, where the lure of history -- matching up with the legendary Laver -- restored Djokovic's thirst for victory.

As historians dissect what took place over this two-day final, they won't dwell for long upon Monday's play. Nadal's victory was all about the first two sets on Sunday. Serving at 5-4 and 30-15 in the first set, he encountered one of those moments of truth: a long, thrilling exchange of laser-beam rockets, the type of point that so often had gone Djokovic's way during those seven straight losses.

With the sudden fury of a lightning bolt, Nadal crushed an inside-out forehand down the line. There were gasps of amazement from the crowd. Djokovic ran it down with a lunging sliced forehand, but Nadal answered with a feathery backhand drop-shot winner. There was bedlam. This was the Nadal we all remembered, and the set would soon be his.

After the first rain delay, lasting 34 minutes, Nadal returned to clinch the second set with a service break. Djokovic appeared to have the 30-40 point won, unleashing a mighty forehand from just outside the service line, but Nadal somehow managed a lunging backhand stab for a cross-court winner. The issue of the Spaniard's superiority was beginning to recall the 2008 French Open final, when his 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 dismantling of Roger Federer left the tennis world in awe.

Djokovic looked thoroughly beaten at this point. He had given away two service games with double-faults, his body language was deteriorating, and he was literally hanging his head as Nadal surged to a 2-0 lead in the third set. That's when his comeback began, a sterling effort through the rainstorm that would eventually force a suspension. His spirit ascended, particularly as he won an epic, 44-shot point in the fourth set. And you wondered: Could this actually happen? On NBC television, John McEnroe said it would mark the greatest comeback of all time, and who could argue? Forget the numbers: Coming back from two sets down against Nadal, on this court, with this much on the line, would truly set Djokovic apart.

Eventually, in the fading daylight, it became absurd that the two men were playing at all. Nadal didn't hide his frustration over the difficult conditions, at one point approaching tournament referee Stefan Fransson with some biting criticism: "You made us play for an hour in this rain -- why stop now? Always the same with you, you never take one position."

Finally came the postponement, and the discouraging notion of an asterisk. Whatever the conditions, however maddening the delays, tennis matches are intended to be completed in a single day. If Djokovic had won, people would forever lament the circumstances. Credit Nadal, the man who said, at his lowest point last year, that part of his mindset would always be to "enjoy the suffering."

He suffers no longer, and his victory carries the ring of justice.

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