Column: 28 of 29 is proof of tennis’ golden era

While a bank of photographers took pictures for posterity and

the front pages of the world, Rafael Nadal lovingly studied the

champions’ names – the likes of Bjorn Borg, Roger Federer and, of

course, his own – engraved on the base of the French Open trophy. A

huge grin dawned on his face like sunrise. He looked like the

happiest person on the planet.

And yet, minutes later, down in the bowels of the Roland Garros

arena where Nadal had just made history, his uncle and coach was

talking not about the brilliance of the best clay-court player

men’s tennis has ever seen, but about his rotten luck. The point

Toni Nadal was making was that his nephew’s career could have been

even more stellar if he’d been playing in another era – one without

Federer and now, increasingly, Novak Djokovic – his defeated

opponent in this French Open final.

”Unlucky, unlucky, oh yes,” uncle Toni said. ”If there wasn’t

Federer, perhaps Rafael would have been No. 1 for four years. But

with Federer, that was impossible.”

He is right, of course. But wrong, too.

Nadal would almost certainly have more major titles by now –

this record seventh French Open crown took his total to 11 – if not

for Federer and Djokovic. Without those two stones in his shoes,

Nadal could have ruled alone at the top of tennis for years.

But would tennis fans have cared as much about the men’s game as

they do now? No. Would so many of them have skipped work on a

Monday to come and watch this rain-interrupted final if it hadn’t

been Nadal vs. Djokovic, world No. 2 vs. No. 1 and both with a

chance to make history? Unlikely. And would Nadal have become such

a good player if first Federer and now Djokovic hadn’t forced him

to improve? Probably not.

”To just watch these top players push each other, I don’t think

there’s any much further to push,” Steffi Graf, a 22-time major

winner on the women’s side, said before this latest momentous

chapter in the Djokovic-Nadal-Federer rivalry. ”Men’s tennis,

definitely, is at the highest it has ever been.”

Like musketeers, they’re even more glorious as a trio. By

building this golden era of tennis together, they share in its

glitter. It may sometimes seem like a curse for Toni Nadal, but it

is precisely because his nephew is tested so often against

opponents of such high quality that we can be absolutely sure of

his and their greatness.

To beat each other, they have had to lift their game to the

highest of standards. All three have been made bigger and stronger

by their rivalry, not diminished by it. They are each other’s

poison, but also each other’s magic potion that makes them look

good. Together, they have now won 28 of the last 29 majors. So, in

men’s tennis, it is them on one plane, everyone else on another,

and looks likely to stay that way for the immediate future, at

least for Nadal and Djokovic. Both in their mid-twenties, they have

more time than Federer, 30, to make even more of a mark.

”They are doing something to one another that hasn’t been done

before,” said three-time French Open champion Mats Wilander.

”Borg made (John) McEnroe a better player, but Borg quit. And

Federer made Nadal a better player, and Federer didn’t quit. And

Djokovic has beaten the hell out of Nadal, and Nadal didn’t quit.

So I think they’re a very special three players that are not afraid

of one another. They’re not mentally really disturbed by one

another. They just tactically, technically can’t handle the other

guy. It’s very interesting.”

Had he won his first French Open final, Djokovic would have

become the first player since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold four majors

at the same time.

But Nadal, for his mental health, needed this victory more.

Another defeat in a major final to the world No.1 would have been

the fourth in a row for Nadal, an unprecedented Grand Slam of

losses that would done untold damage to the Spaniard’s

confidence.

So he came to this match talking as though he had swallowed a

library of self-help motivational books – ”I will be there

fighting,” ”I can’t let him feel comfortable,” ”I have to play

aggressive, I have to play my game” – and executed his plan for

the first two sets until rain Sunday made the balls play like

grapefruits and take the sting off Nadal’s shots.

If looks could kill, there’s a patch of red clay on the Philippe

Chatrier showcourt at Roland Garros that would need last rites.

That was where Djokovic’s backhand service return landed on the

very first point of the fourth set, with the tide turning

Djokovic’s way after he won the third. Nadal swung his racket,

missed the ball entirely and, convinced he’d had a bad bounce from

the increasingly sodden clay, stared furiously at the offending

spot. That captured how the wet messed with Nadal’s mind and his

tennis.

Nadal can count himself lucky that the referee intervened two

games later, sending them home until Monday. But he doesn’t owe his

eventual 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 victory to luck. He won as he often

does: by soaking up pretty much everything thrown at him and

returning it with interest and lashes of topspin.

Nadal is so at home at Roland Garros that the ballkids know,

seemingly without being told, to lay out a towel on the red clay

next to his bench so his white equipment bag doesn’t get dirty.

Beating him was always going to require Djokovic’s very best

tennis, and he only delivered that in patches. To breach Nadal’s

defenses, Djokovic was forced to aim for the sidelines. Often, the

risk didn’t pay off. But he did have some success with serve and

volley and a few elegant lobs over Nadal’s head – variety that may

help him unlock the riddle of beating Nadal on his best surface

next time.

”How much is he going to improve on clay? So much,” said

Wilander. ”After today, he’s going to figure, ‘OK, I could have

won that match if I do this and this, and I work on my forehand and

maybe come in a little more, maybe more surprise serve and volley,

three or four points makes a big difference.’ He’s right there.

They better watch out for him on clay next year, because he’ll be

heading in the other direction, I think. I really do.”

What a prospect. For many, Federer is the greatest player in

tennis history. His record 16 major titles give his fans a

gilt-edged argument. Without Nadal, Federer would have had more.

Without Federer, so might Nadal. And, without them, Djokovic would

not have been forced to hone himself into the force he has become –

formidable enough to still be ranked No. 1 despite this defeat.

A golden era, indeed.

”I have great rivals,” said Nadal. ”For me, you can feel

unlucky or lucky, both.”

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The

Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow

him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester