Rafael Nadal celebrates after defeating Novak Djokovic to claim the 2014 French Open. Photo: Thibault Camus
Paris: After all the consecutive victories and the confidently clenched fists, after the new hires and the new attitude, the 2014 French Open was just another red-clay rerun for Novak Djokovic.
He arrived in Paris full of fresh and legitimate hope. He will depart again without the trophy, which is officially called the Coupe des Mousquetaires but which is clearly in need of a name change at this belief-beggaring stage of the tournament's history.
In the modern era, no man has had a tighter grip on a grand slam event than Rafael Nadal, whose 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 victory over Djokovic allowed him to win his ninth French Open by the age of 28.
Djokovic, trying to complete his collection of major singles titles, was far from his consistent, suffocating best. But so was Nadal, and this final was, in a sense, a condensed, 3-hour-and-30-minute version of his trying clay-court season.
He struggled early with his ground strokes and his nerve but steadily gathered strength and belief, whipping his trademark forehand with familiar force down the stretch despite the heat, pressure and fatigue, and finally dropping to his knees in triumph, his taped fingers covering his face.
There were also tears, quite a few of them - should this start to feel blase after nine titles in 10 years - as he stood on the podium in the Philippe Chatrier Court and listened to the Spanish national anthem.
"I knew I had lost four times in a row to Novak, and to be able to win again against him was very important to me," Nadal said. "I had enough courage. I made the right decisions at the right moment and ended up on top. It's an emotional moment, a real mix of things."
Nadal is now tied with Pete Sampras for second on the career list with 14 grand slam singles titles, and he is now only three behind the leader, Roger Federer, who has 17.
"That's true, but I'll repeat what I always say: that this is not something that worries me or motivates me," said Nadal, who planned to head to the grass-court tuneup in Halle, Germany, on Monday to prepare for Wimbledon. "I'm following my path, and when my career is over, then we'll count them up."
Nadal might already have 15 major titles if he had not had a back problem in the final of this year's Australian Open, where he was upset by the Swiss veteran Stan Wawrinka.
"It was a very hard moment, so today the tennis give me back what happened in Australia," Nadal said, although he made it clear that he would not necessarily have won if healthy.
Still, he said, the defeat knocked the desire out of him for weeks, and there were other hard moments on the road to Roland Garros, including an unprecedented three defeats in places that are usually his strongholds. David Ferrer beat him in Monte Carlo; Nicolas Almagro in Barcelona and Djokovic in the Rome final.
That was Djokovic's fourth straight victory over Nadal, but Djokovic, the elastic Serbian, has previously arrived in Paris on a clay-court roll and faltered. And he has now lost two of the last three French Open finals to Nadal and suffered a string of tough defeats in grand slam tournaments.
"Sorry for him," Nadal said. "I think he deserved to win this tournament. I'm sure he will in the future."
That is hardly guaranteed. Nadal is still squarely in the picture and only a year older. Younger talents will rise. Injuries or other factors could diminish Djokovic.
Djokovic, soon to be married and a father for the first time, sounded more philosophical than crestfallen in defeat, even though he teared up himself after receiving his runner-up trophy and hearing the crowd on Philippe Chatrier court applaud and chant his name.
"In the end of the day you have to put things in perspective, and see where I come from and what kind of life I have," he said. "It's a blessing. So to be able to also be appreciated by the fans the way I was at the end of the match just gives me more, I'd say, strength and motivation to come back here and try till the end of my career hopefully to get at least a title."
Until Sunday, Djokovic was 35-0 in finals in which he won the opening set, but no lead (or statistic) can truly be safe against Nadal on clay, even when he is missing backhands and forehands by the bunches in the early stages.
The match turned in the second set, but it was still difficult to know what to expect from either man as they alternated the great, the bad and the ugly; excelling under pressure and wilting under it, too.
After stripping Nadal of time and rhythm in earlier matches this year; Djokovic could not muster the energy or accuracy to pose the same consistent threat.
He double faulted on match point, having to make a second toss after a spectator shouted during his first, forcing him to let it drop and hit the clay. As Nadal exulted across the net, Djokovic pointed accusatorily into the stands. But given time to reflect, he made it clear that the fault was not with the public.
"You cannot find excuses in the crowd," he said.
Someone suggested that perhaps cooler weather and a later start might have made a difference.
"Well," Djokovic answered, "if I was a left-hander, maybe I would win the tournament."
That combination certainly has worked in Paris for Nadal.
New York Times