After delay, he's still King of Clay

Rafael Nadal wins seventh French Open title, halts Novak Djokovic's comeback.

Recapturing the dominance he had enjoyed in the first two sets the day before, Rafael Nadal returned to a surprisingly well-populated Philippe Chatrier Center Court to rewrite history and win the French Open for the seventh time, completing a 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 victory Monday over the world No. 1 Novak Djokovic.

It was an outcome — emotional in the extreme as the Nadal camp dissolved into tears of joy — few were willing to predict as everyone gathered again for a Monday final at Roland Garros for the first time since 1973. I spoke to numerous former players as everyone cast anxious eyes skyward, and no one from Manuel Santana and Mats Wilander to Fred Stolle and Heinz Gunthardt was willing to hazard a guess after the amazing fight back Djokovic had staged in the previous evening.

Djokovic won eight straight games against the master clay-courter to leave himself a break up — if two sets to one down — at 2-1 in the fourth.

Most observers felt that the match hinged on Nadal’s ability to get that break back at the earliest possibility and so reduce the chances of the match entering a fifth set. And that is precisely what he did. Staying in a long rally at 30-all in the first game on the resumption as Djokovic pushed him to all corners of the court, Nadal got his reward when the Serb hit a very makeable forehand into the net, trying to go down the line.

Then came the moment when Lady Luck changed horses. One could say that she had been riding with Djokovic when Jo-Wilfried Tsonga missed four match points against him in the quarterfinals and, perhaps, again when the rain started falling the evening before, nullifying the power of the Spanish forehand as the balls grew heavier. But now, it was a simple net cord from Djokovic that fell over the net and gave Nadal an easy cross-court winner. And that was the break he needed so badly.

"Today, he started strong,” a dejected Djokovic said. “I started slower. I was a little bit unfortunate in that first game, and that changed things around. But I don’t find an excuse in that.”

He’s not a man for excuses, Djokovic. The disappointment obviously cut deep because he was so close to joining Rod Laver and Don Budge as the two men who have held all four Slam titles at one time. There are few who would have begrudged him that honor after the superlative tennis he has played the past 18 months.

But the fact is the pendulum has swung back in Nadal’s favor. Djokovic had beaten his great rival in the previous three Grand Slam finals — at Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open in January — but throughout this French Open, he had looked like a man searching for his best form. Apart from the escape against Tsonga, he had been two sets down against Italy’s Andreas Seppi and, of course, had lost to Nadal in two clay-court finals in Monte Carlo and Rome in the preceding weeks.

The comeback in this match had shown just what a competitor he is — but, on the day, not quite as big a competitor as the King of Clay, whose reaction to victory, celebrated amid flailing arms, embraces and wet cheeks in his player’s box, revealed the extent of his relief, as well as joy.

"This is an unforgettable moment for me,” Nadal said. “There is a lot of emotion. It was very difficult, this victory. Yesterday, Novak played incredible. It was a privilege to play against one of the best players in the world.”

Suddenly, the focus will switch to what, right now, is a collection of very wet grass courts at Wimbledon. Djokovic will be desperate not to lose his crown there. But with Roger Federer and Andy Murray also in the mix and Tsonga looking as if he might be on the verge of a major breakthrough at Grand Slam level, the competition will be fierce.

That is the situation in men’s tennis at the moment — a small, elite group of exceptional players who will keep on writing themselves into the folklore of the game with their skill and endless thirst for success.