The drama was left hanging in the rain-filled evening air after Novak Djokovic had staged an extraordinary comeback Sunday against an infuriated Rafael Nadal in the final of the French Open.
When it was called off for the night at 8 p.m. local time, Nadal, the defending champion, was still clinging, mathematically, to a lead of 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 1-2. But, psychologically, those figures might not mean the same thing.
“I never believed we would see Rafael Nadal lose eight straight games on clay — and we will never see it again,” said a stunned John McEnroe.
Others, who had actually won this title — McEnroe lost from two sets and a break up against Ivan Lendl in 1984 — were equally incredulous.
Manuel Santana and Jan Kodes both felt the match should have been stopped earlier as the rain continued to fall quite heavily through the latter half of the afternoon.
“The heavier the ball, the less spin Rafa can get on it,” Santana said. “It takes away the effectiveness of his forehand.”
That much became clear as the red clay court turned into a quagmire and Djokovic began his comeback. At two sets and a break down, the world No. 1 — who is trying to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four Grand Slam titles at once — seemed totally dispirited. Despite fighting back from 0-3 in the first set to 3-all, he had double-faulted to lose his serve again in the seventh game. And when he was broken again in the first game of the second, it seemed that Nadal was on his way to a record-breaking seventh Roland Garros title.
It is hard to believe that would not have been the case had not rain interrupted play when the Spanish left-hander was leading 5-2 in the second. That wicked forehand was in the groove, and two majestic winners off that flank only emphasized Nadal’s superiority.
When they returned, the interruption did not seem to have affected Nadal too much. He broke immediately to wrap up the set and then broke again in the second game of the third as Djokovic hit two forehands long — the Serb somehow resisting the temptation to take another swipe at the chair with his racket as he had done four games earlier. He had received a conduct warning for that and would have been in danger of losing a point the second time around.
Instead, the steely-eyed Serb pounced in the very next game, breaking back as Nadal, starting to be concerned by the heavy balls, netted a forehand and put a weak backhand wide. After that, Djokovic simply took over. Incredibly, he broke the Spaniard’s serve four straight times — a run that took him through the third set and into a 2-0 lead in the fourth.
Proving that he could live with Nadal in long rallies, Djokovic won the longest one of the match in the first game of the fourth set, a killer of a duel that had lasted 44 muscle-stretching shots before Nadal netted. Djokovic was breathing heavily, but he was triumphant. He knew that he had snatched the match away from this mighty champion and, even though he would still have to win two more sets, that unlikely outcome had become a possibility.
For the previous four or five games, Nadal had been remonstrating with the umpire, asking for play to be called off as the rain fell. But it was not until the third game of the fourth that his demands were answered and, by then, the damage had been done.
In the players lounge, Nadal’s coach, uncle Toni Nadal, was marching about with a face of thunder, barely concealing his anger while talking to tournament officials. Meanwhile Srdjan Djokovic, Novak’s father, was seen laughing with friends. Not for the first time in this tournament — he had saved four match points against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga — Novak had found the keys that just might get himself out of jail.
Play was scheduled to restart at 7 a.m. ET Monday.