Once again, Nadal proves indestructible on the French Open clay

Sunday June 8th, 2014

Rafael Nadal took down Novak Djokovic and hoisted the Musketeers' Trophy for a record ninth time.

The current rock star of Paris is not Yannick Noah or the Daft Punk guys. It's not a member of Les Bleus or Tony Parker. And it's not a breakout actor from Cannes. Instead, it's a paunchy middle-aged economist who most of us would pass on the street without recognizing. Thomas Pinketty, author of the runaway international best-seller, Capital In The Twenty-First Century, is a public (and media) darling, owing to his manifesto on income equality.

Agree or disagree with his thesis and his remedies -- and many do both -- this we know: he didn't base his research in men's tennis. Otherwise, he would have drawn the opposite conclusion: in the ATP micro-economy, the dense concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a select few has made for a gilded age.

Three men have, greedily, laid claim to 35 of the last 40 Grand Slam titles. They have batted around the top ranking, as if rallying from the baseline. There have been high barriers to entry, and the rest of the population has been shut of their oligopoly. And yet you'd be hard-pressed to argue that this hasn't benefitted everyone involved.

With sands slipping from Roger Federer's hourglass, the other two members of the tennis troika, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, are the current power brokers. They are No. 1 and No. 2 in the rankings. They've met in the finals of each of the four Grand Slams. At the 2014 French Open, they were positioned on opposite poles of the draw; but it was an article of faith that they would bushwhack their way through six rounds of foliage and meet in the final -- which is precisely what happened. They are the one percent.

Sunday in Paris, we were treated to Nadal-Djokovic XLII -- the 42nd meeting between two players who have distanced themselves from the field, sometimes appearing to render other pros "colleagues" in name only. And in a match heavy on implication and light on beauty, Nadal prevailed 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4, to win his ninth French Open.

Game-by-game analysis of Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic in French Open final

Novak Djokovic came up short of his first French Open title and his career Grand Slam.
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

This will not be recalled as one of the classic matches between Nadal and Djokovic. Both players betrayed nerves throughout the match. They endured rough patches when their shots -- their backhands especially -- let them down. Their serves were unremarkable. Djokovic smashed his racket. And vomited. And double-faulted on match point. There was plenty of drama, but it came principally from wondering which player's body would give out first.

Still, this rivalry is so entrenched that -- even when the aesthetics are lousy -- the matches are worth watching for the narrative alone. By beating Djokovic for the third straight year at Roland Garros, Nadal snapped a four-match losing streak to his nemesis. He deprived Djokovic of the one major to elude him. He secured his top ranking. He gathered momentum heading to Wimbledon, where Nadal somehow lost in the first round last year. Maybe most important, Slam No. 14 puts him ever closer to the summit of Mount Federer (altitude: 17) and with it, the Greatest Of All Time designation.

Djokovic has been admirably outspoken about his desire to win the French Open and complete his career Grand Slam. He played like he was on a mission to start the match, riding his backhand, breaking Nadal's serve and winning the first set 6-3. But an hour or so into the match, Nadal blazed to life, cleaning up his game and began controlling rallies, mostly with his forehand -- a weapon of devastation -- with his jumping, jiving, spin-heavy balls, swerving so fiercely they would fail a roadside sobriety test.

Nadal closed out the second set 7-5. And when Nadal broke Djokovic in the second game of the third set, the term "break" took on literal meaning. The Serb appeared fissured, dejected and weary, and soon lost the third set.

Down 4-2 in the fourth set, Djokovic was given a reprieve when a desperate, defensive shot licked the baseline. Nadal wound up for an overhead and, in the process of missing the shot, appeared to tweak his back -- the same injury he suffered in the final of January's Australian Open against Stan Wawrinka. Suddenly, the set was 4-4.

Nadal, though, fashioned an escape route, cutting down his margin for error and holding serve. Then, with Djokovic serving to stay in the tournament, he blinked and Nadal won the last four points.

It's hard not to feel for Djokovic. He could quit tennis tomorrow and go down as one of the all-time greats. He is an unimpeachable player with no discernible weakness. From going gluten-free to hiring Boris Becker as coach -- in part because, as he puts it, he hasn't been at his best during the biggest moments of his career -- his naked ambition and desire to improve is admirable.

Still, he has now won only one Grand Slam over the last 30 months. He remains the world No. 2, but he's now lost in his last three Grand Slam finals. He came to Paris fresh off a win over Nadal on clay. But, today, in one of the biggest matches of his career, everything from his backhand to his digestive system let him down. And once again, he leaves Paris parched.

Then again, beating Nadal at Roland Garros in a best-of-five match is tennis' ultimate task. Only one man has done it in the past decade. Otherwise Nadal has been indestructible. Conditions and distrations and niggling injuries and an absence of momentum coming in? None of it matters. Bless Roland Garros and his aerial derring-do a century ago; but they should just rechristen the joint in Nadal's honor. Put simply: he owns it.

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