Tennis

Nadal's dominance may be unmatched

Image: Rafael Nadal (AP Photo, Bernat Armangue)
Rafael Nadal holds the trophy for the seventh time at Roland Garros.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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Three minutes before he took the court at Roland Garros on Monday, Rafael Nadal wasn’t ready. It had been a rough night, he said. A day earlier, he was putting Novak Djokovic away in the French Open final, and then Djokovic started rolling over him the way he had done all last year.

2012 French Open

2012 French Open

The match was stopped for the night because of rain. But think of what Nadal went through after that: Djokovic had beaten him in the finals of the past three majors. Djokovic had gotten inside Nadal’s head.

Djokovic, for the past year, had been the immovable force in tennis.

Well, forget all that, because in those final three minutes before taking the court Monday, Nadal felt the comfort of home. His home: Roland Garros.

Nadal won his record seventh French Open, 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5. Djokovic is not the immovable force of tennis, after all. Nadal on red clay is.

In fact, Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros is the greatest, most dominant individual force in sports today, maybe ever.

Tiger Woods at the Masters? No. Mike Tyson? No. Maybe Usain Bolt. Maybe Michael Phelps, but that was a one-time thing in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. We’ll see how they do this summer in London.

Besides, they have to do it only every four years. Nadal has won seven of the past eight French Opens. He is 52-1 there in his career. The one loss was to Robin Soderling three years ago when Nadal was hurt.

Remember? After that match, Nadal had to step away from the tour because of tendinitis in his knees. He didn’t even try to defend his Wimbledon title, and talk around tennis — including from me, honestly — was that his style of play pounded on his knees so much that his career was in jeopardy. He would never last.

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal

YOU AGAIN?

Seeing Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in a final is becoming commonplace. Relive their memorable matches.

He has won three French Opens in a row since then. No one is even close to him at the French, and no one is coming. He might well win three more.

“I suffered,’’ Nadal said after winning Monday. “But I enjoyed.’’

It’s always a little dicey when people start talking about greatest-evers in sports; it’s just opinion, and there are so many factors. It’s even more impossible when crossing over into different sports.

But the thing is, Nadal never loses at the French, barring a fluke. The odds are against eight straight years with no flukes. He passed Bjorn Borg’s French record Monday.

And think of the era that Nadal is doing this in. He is beating Roger Federer, considered by most people to be the greatest player of all time. Djokovic is on a historic roll and was trying to become the first player in 43 years to win all four majors in a row. Federer had two chances to win four in a row.

Guess who stopped him both times. Guess where.

Who even compares to this, not only in records, but also considering the elite competition of the era? Even team sports don’t have anyone this dominant, other than Michael Jordan.

Nadal owns the French Open in what might be the golden era at the top of his sport. Tennis is far more physical and aggressive and demanding than it was at any time before.

For tennis, this was going to be a winning moment no matter what. If Djokovic had won his fourth straight, a Djoker Slam, it would have been something to celebrate, too. The unexpected benefit, though, was that tennis now has a new great rivalry.

SLAM DANCE

Take a look back at each of Rafael Nadal's 13 Grand Slam titles.

For years, Nadal-Federer was the best individual rivalry in sports. Djokovic was one level down. But last year, Djokovic dominated, winning three majors and going on a run that included seven straight wins in finals over Nadal. That included wins at Wimbledon, the US Open and this year’s Australian Open.

It’s not a rivalry when one side wins every single time. No, that’s the Harlem Globetrotters. Now, Nadal has broken Djokovic’s streak, and these two have been in four major finals in a row.

What is Nadal doing on clay? Mixing incredible footwork, spin and accuracy. In the United States, the red clay has always been considered some sort of gimmick. You barely ever see the stuff here, and it was slow and defensive-minded. Today, it is considered the place to learn the game.

The US Tennis Association is trying to put up clay courts — the US green clay, anyway – and teach prospects on the stuff. The clay slows down the ball and requires far more strategy than hard courts. It forces you to build a point. Besides that, the clay is much faster now than it used to be.

So even in the eight years since Nadal started playing the French, the style of play on clay has evolved, become more offensive. Against Djokovic, Nadal was on defense much of the time until Djokovic hit one short ball, or made any mistake at all. Then, Nadal would turn defense to offense in a snap.

Djokovic had little chance to win the match. His one hope came Sunday, when the rain throughout the match soaked the tennis balls, which were rolling through water all day. The balls became heavier, and Nadal couldn’t get his spin on them. Djokovic, hitting flatter, wasn’t bothered as much.

“I felt that he was pushing me back,’’ Nadal said. “I (didn’t) have enough shot to push him back. He’s was in attack position.’’

French officials should never have let the match get to that point, though. They did it to make the broadcasters happy, but it served only to lower the quality of play and nearly ruin the moment.

When the players came back Monday, Nadal had his spin back. And his dominance.

His only flaw of the day came afterward, when he held the winner’s cup over his head and accidentally bonked it against his eye. A welt formed.

“No,’’ he told John McEnroe during a post-match interview for NBC. “Nothing hurts.’’

Nadal will have plenty more chances to get the trophy thing right.

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