June 11, 2012

Rewriting History

We knew by the time this year's French Open final was over that history would be made, but at various points during the two-day long battle the version of history we'd get changed more than a few times.

Defending champion Rafael Nadal was going after his record seventh Roland Garros crown, hoping to break the Open Era tie he'd created with Bjorn Borg last year, and he was in good shape to do it. The clay court king had put together a 16-1 record on the surface this year, picking up titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome, and summarily worked through his first six matches in Paris without dropping a set -- his biggest challenge came from countryman Nicolas Almagro in the quarters, against whom he needed a full hour to close out the first set.

His opponent in the final was world #1 Novak Djokovic, playing in the championship match here for the first time in his career. The record-setting Serb was looking to complete his own career Grand Slam, something Roger Federer did in 2009 and Nadal accomplished about a year later. But having won the last three Majors as well, he'd be going for the cycle too, a feat no man had achieved since Rod Laver did it in 1969. He'd struggled in his later round matches this fortnight, coming back from deficits against both Andreas Seppi and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga before sailing through his semi on Friday.

With so much on the line, the match-up seemed appropriate -- the pair had combined to win the last eight Slams and played the finals of the last three. They had wracked up a thirty-two match history, dating back to 2006, and the last nine meetings had been in a championship match. Djokovic, of course, had done a lot to even the score with his contemporary in the last eighteen months, wresting the #1 ranking from him and winning seven straight matches against the Spaniard, even besting him twice on his native clay last year. Rafa had ended the losing streak in Monaco, but he's still struggled in the Majors, and hasn't won a match at one since the 2010 U.S. Open.

Still at this Slam, on this surface, Nadal was probably still the odds-on favorite. He'd only lost one match ever at Roland Garros, and hadn't even lost a set to Djokovic here. And after his comparatively easy run to the final, it wasn't too surprising that he built a 3-0, two-break lead quickly to start. But Nole came back hitting hard, evening the score for a beat before Rafa closed out the first set. He stage another comeback after going down an early break in the second, too, but Nadal took another break just before play was suspended due to rain. When they resumed a little more than a half hour later and Rafa broke again for a two-set lead, it was looking like things would be over soon.

But things turned around again. Down another break in the third, Djokovic seemed to finally find his game and rallied off eight straight games, forcing a fourth set in the process and halting Nadal's dominating form just as he looked destined to top the record books. The Spaniard managed to finally stop the bleeding and get on the board when it started raining again and play was postponed until Monday. And when the players took to the court again, the tide turned once more with Nadal immediately breaking to kick play off. The match had the potential to end quickly after that, but Djokovic stayed as tough as he could, wilting under the pressure only when trying to serve for a tiebreak and double faulting on match point.

It's a little disheartening for Nole, of course -- the chances of him putting together another twenty-seven match win streak at the Majors are low, so this was likely his only chance for the Novak Slam, while Rafa probably has a couple more Roland Garros trophies left in him and could have surpassed Borg's record in any number of future years had he not done so today. But the win did more than cement him as the Greatest of All Time on clay -- it reversed a long streak of high-profile losses to a man who'd had his number for over a year and will hopefully give him the confidence that he hasn't lost his edge. It's a good time for Nadal to take the reins, too -- with Wimbledon just two weeks away and the Olympics not long after, there's more than a good chance he's put himself on track to climb back to the top of the sport and set himself a whole bunch of new records in the coming months.

For now, though, he'll have to settle for celebrating his Lucky #7 at the French Open -- one piece of history that will likely stand a very long time.

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