It’s a feeling that Novak Djokovic has known before – a sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach. But this sensation has nothing to do with the obvious stomach upset that the Serbian was experiencing in the late third and early fourth sets of his sixth and latest attempt to wrest the French Open title from the rapacious grip of Rafael Nadal. Instead, this feeling is what could be termed a metaphorical sour stomach, arising from the realization that the one accomplishment which could complete his professional tennis being, a French Open title, was slipping away quickly as Nadal would not give an inch on any Djokovic break chance. The Serbian’s long, frustrated stares to his entourage could only be returned with looks of sympathetic resignation. “After all, he’s Nadal, and this is Paris”, they tell their man with their eyes.
The feeling plaguing Djokovic is no stranger to some of the greats to play on the men’s ATP Tour. Ivan Lendl knew it at Wimbledon, as his hopes of victory were continually dashed by Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg, and an Aussie named Cash. The feeling haunted the psyche of the great Bjorn Borg (who exchanged a hug with Rafa after the Spaniard’s 2014 triumph) at the U.S. Open, as he could not overcome the fire of home boys Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, and left New York empty-handed each time he played there. To a lesser degree, the sensation was familiar also to Tim Henman, the beloved British hope who was often in the hunt for the title at Wimbledon, but always seemed to have a guy named Sampras staring back at him from across the net late in the tournament.
What makes this type of sour stomach so much more formidable than its physical counterpart, however, is the manner in which it lingers for days, weeks, or even months at a time. For Novak Djokovic, the indigestion of this most current defeat at the hands of Nadal in Paris may trouble his soul right until next spring. While their rivalry, easily the greatest in men’s tennis history, stands at a relatively even 23-19 in Nadal’s favor, the Spaniard, as he has with Roger Federer, has been dominant in the Grand Slam arena, leading the Serbian 9-3 overall.
Djokovic, if it is any consolation at all, surely has nothing to be ashamed of with this latest setback, though. Roger Federer endured four straight years of losses to Nadal at Roland Garros (2005 semis; 2006 – 2008 finals), including the worst beatdown of his career in 2008. Federer could hardly have been faulted if he had begun entertaining thoughts that a title in Paris might simply never happen for him. But as tennis fans well know, the fickle hand of tennis fate (as well as Nadal’s cranky knees) intervened in 2009, with Nadal suffering the only stumble of his career there in the 4th-round to Robin Soderling. The Swiss Maestro then took full advantage of the absence of the Mallorcan Bull (perhaps “bully” might be more appropriate), and provided the only interruption in Rafa’s run in the last ten French Opens. It certainly seems that the Djoker will need a similar kind of assistance if he is to ever lift the trophy in Paris.
It is a safe assumption, however, that Federer, if he was taking in the 2014 French Final, was perhaps rooting for Djokovic this day, if only to slow down Nadal’s seemingly inexorable march toward his mark of 17 Grand Slam titles, currently the most for any male pro. Nadal, with his ninth title (fifth consecutive) at Roland Garros, now stands at 14 career Grand Slams. In spite of a clay court season in which he actually suffered three defeats, won only one title (in Madrid, an unconvincing victory aided possibly by Kei Nishikori’s bad back), and had fans and pundits both wondering if his legendary dominance on the red dirt was finally fading, the King of Clay has shown all the doubters by his impressive run in Paris that he has no plans to abdicate anytime soon.
When one considers how much has to fall into place for any player, even an established elite player, to taste victory at a Grand Slam event, it is almost unthinkable that Nadal has but one blemish to his record (66 – 1) in ten total French campaigns. The decade of dominance that he has forged in France is obviously unmatched in tennis history, and likely will never be equaled by any player on any surface. Had his back not acted up in the Australian Open final, Nadal could legitimately be considering the possibility of a Grand Slam in 2014. If physically uncompromised, he remains the game of tennis’ most ruthless opponent, a force to be reckoned with under any circumstances.
As the tennis season now makes its customary abrupt shift to the crisp lawns of London, perhaps the most compelling question with respect to Nadal is how he will make the transition to the surface most antithetical to his beloved clay. Last year, the Spaniard suffered a shocking first-round loss at Wimbledon after putting his eighth French Open title in the bank. One would have to think that while Nadal continues to make Roland Garros an annual rite of celebration, each succeeding year may take a little more from the reserves of the Spaniard in order to replicate his success. The more ‘”civilized” lawns of Wimbledon offer a greater number of players a real chance for victory than do the ruddy grounds of Paris, but Nadal’s odds to win a third Wimbledon cannot be discounted.
A wise gambling man would do well not to bet against him.
Some statistics courtesy of the ATP website, atpworldtour.com