At a certain point in the fifth set it became futile. A notebook covered in blue ink and coffee stains wasn’t going to help. Put down the pen and enjoy this, idiot.
A friend who considers sport a needless distraction sent me a text in the fourth set. This match had officially crossed over into the mainstream. Every so often tennis will do this, when those days streaming a challenger circuit tournament in Hamburg pay off. When John McEnroe declares it the greatest of all time–he’ll do that.
Hyperbole? Yes. But this one was up there. Grievances, contested calls, wonderful shot making and a fifth set that didn’t want to end — the first semifinal on a Friday afternoon in Paris had it all.
It was nice to see Rafa challenged last week, but this is what we waited for. The best clay courter of all time against the best player in the world. Roger Federer, a draw no matter his form, exited at the perfect juncture, possibly sensing that this one wasn’t about him.
Five sets and over four hours later Rafael Nadal heads to the final.
I. The Opening Salvo
The opening set played out like so many Nadal matches at Roland Garros. At 3-4 the Spainard broke, capitalizing on a stretch of wonky shot making from Novak Djokovic. Death, taxes and Nadal holding at love on Philippe Chatrier. Like Clockwork.
Djokovic responded in the second set, breaking Nadal at 3-3. No other rivalry has seen momentum swing so randomly. When it seemed like an error prone Djokovic wouldn’t have enough to challenge Nadal on Clay he stormed right back.
The lack of belief that so many players have when challenging Rafa on clay doesn’t exist in Novak’s mind. For fans who have gotten use to players capitulating at the sight of brick wall Nadal this is all we ask for. Fight. Djokovic didn’t disappoint, upping his level and in turn, making Rafa do the same.
II. The Argument
The French Open is the only Grand Slam that doesn’t feature Hawkeye, relying on the clay itself to provide rulings for disputed calls. At a certain level it’s nice and homely. At another, more important level, it’s incredibly stupid. An incorrect ruling during Djokovic’s first service game in the third set would ultimately decide the middle stanza.
The technology isn’t perfect. A 3mm margin of error is disconcerting, but as an aid to umpires it can only help. Ball does lie, apparently. Pascal Maria, the ump that oversaw the epic 2008 Wimbledon final, wasn’t done inserting himself into the match. Nadal was called for a time violation, a penalty that should be enforced on the regular. Djokovic lost a point for running into the net after putting away an easy winner. This drew the ire of McEnroe, who showed why he was so likable back in the day. I’m being facetious of course. Drank a glass of water. It was the greatest of all time.
III. The Return
It was looking grim for the glory hunters. National columnists with nothing to do on Friday morning hadn’t tweeted about the match yet. Nadal broke Djokovic twice in the fourth set, only to cede the advantage in the next game. At 5-6 the number one had that look. The same one that appeared in Australia last year. A brilliant forehand winner sent the fourth into a tiebreak, where Djokovic immediately pounced on a lead and never looked back.
This rivalry needed a five setter at Roland Garros. So rarely are the wishes of sports fans granted. The golden age of Men’s Tennis is the gift that continues to give. Please don’t end.
IV. The Epic
An early break by Djokovic wasn’t enough. Nadal eventually clawed his way back into the set, equaling Djokovic’s killer inside out forehand with a spin crazy weapon of his own. 5-5 in the fifth set. 6-6 in the fifth set. The recent spate of Isner Marathons has reinvigorated calls for a tiebreak in the final set of Grand Slams. I’m not sure we could’ve handled that. That glass of water needed more alcohol.
Serving from behind in matches like these is an unenviable task . Nicholas Mahut held serve for an eternity only to be felled by a couple loose points. While this match didn’t go nearly as long, Djokovic would be at the same disadvantage.
Eventually it came at 7-8. Nadal seized on a couple of errors, capping over four hours of riveting action with a knowing smile at Uncle Toni. Rafa is now 58-1 at Roland Garros. For an hour or so a remarkable run that’s seen the Spaniard reach nine consecutive finals since returning from injury was in jeopardy. As he’s done so often, Rafa found a way.
Exhale. Why can’t every day be like this.