Judgement of Paris

Novak Djokovic gestures during the final. The Serb missed the opportunity to join Don Budge and Rod Laver as the only men to have held all four Grand Slam crowns at a time.-AP

As Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic met at Roland Garros, the first time in the Open Era that two men had contested four successive major finals, History, uneasy with its weight, cracked, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

In the weird and wonderful canon of fantasy literature, there's a David Eddings series in which a prophecy — that most useful of plot drivers — splits in two. Each division, in direct conflict with the other, tries to fulfil itself. Apparently these things don't just happen in books. Why, men's tennis had something similar going on: as Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic met at Roland Garros, the first time in the Open Era that two men had contested four successive major finals, History, uneasy with its weight, cracked.

One part championed Nadal. Should the Spaniard win, he would break Bjorn Borg's record of six French Open titles. The other aligned with Djokovic. Should the Serb win, he would join Don Budge and Rod Laver as the only men to have held all four Grand Slam crowns at a time. The irony of all of this was, of course, that the man seen until recently as History's chosen one, Roger Federer, was reduced to being a supporting act to the most compelling rivalry in tennis. Imagine that: Federer, the owner of 16 Grand Slams and on anything close to a decent day near unbeatable by 99 per cent of the field, had been outstripped.

But the rivalry itself was in danger of sliding into slackness. It had swung from one sort of lopsidedness to another. Much like Nadal seemed to have Federer's number in their matches, a rivalry as grand and storied as any the game has seen, Djokovic seemed to have acquired Nadal's. From being 7-16 down in the overall head-to-head record (till 2010), Djokovic had, with seven straight wins, narrowed it to 14-16.

Nadal arrested the slide with victories on his beloved clay in Monte Carlo and Rome earlier this year, but it didn't change the fact that he had lost three straight Grand Slam finals to the World No. 1; or that Djokovic had beaten him on clay every time they met in 2011 (were it not for Federer finding in last year's semifinals at Roland Garros a vitality in attack only the very greatest manage from time to time, Djokovic will have forced Nadal to confront these demons then).

This year's French Open final was for this reason more than just a clash of two fractions of History, as supremely significant (and delectably fantastic) as it was. Contained within the match was the potential to determine the course of men's tennis. If Nadal were to lose at Roland Garros, where he had previously lost just one of 52 matches, the denouement would have been terrible for him. Although Robin Soderling sustained a display of viciously brilliant ball-striking in 2009, and deserved to win, Nadal wasn't entirely himself. He was both physically and mentally distressed. That was a defeat he could come back from; there was space to grow. But to lose to Djokovic now would be another dispiriting reminder that his best isn't good enough. While he would have no doubt continued to fight and attempt to improve, in increments, his game — to not do so would rail against Nadal's very nature — his belief would have been shaken even more than it has been over the last year and a half.

Stadium employees cover the Centre Court after rain forces suspension of the men's singles final on Sunday, June 10.-AP

As Nadal and Djokovic lined up on opposite sides of Court Philippe Chatrier, it was clear the match would be played on two levels. The most apparent would be their games, physically and tactically, in opposition. There was a time when the clay court was the preserve of the sort that stitched leather pads onto their coat elbows and buried their money in their backyards: fussily cautious, mind-numbingly risk averse. While pushers and junk-ballers, human backboards and power-leeches haven't gone entirely out of fashion, they don't dominate the scene anymore.

Nadal might play with a margin of safety — the incredible topspin he generates allows him that for it drags the ball down to court even when furiously hit — but every stroke of his is designed to advance the rally. Recklessness doesn't visit him, but he's often at the very edge of control. Djokovic's greatness on the other hand lies in his ability to constantly push the boundaries of control. He's called the Djoker for a tendency to play the off-court fool, but it's his game on-court that has the unhinged menace of the Joker.

Right away these tendencies began to quarrel. Both searched for depth, Djokovic with his flatter shots that incredibly fell in time after time, Nadal with his loopier strokes that were more consistent but also — because the court had grown heavy with moisture — easier to attack when they didn't jump off the surface and climb above the level of the shoulder. And when Nadal withdrew behind the baseline, as he is apt to do, his strokes landed even shorter on Djokovic's side. But two things were in Nadal's favour in the first two sets. Djokovic's execution was off, particularly on the first serve — without which not even he can dictate to Nadal — but also on both ground-strokes. The other thing that benefited Nadal pertained to the second level the match was being contested on: Nadal was able to relax mentally, he was able to play with what he calls “the good feelings”, and during crucial points he asserted himself, stepping into the court, changing direction more than he is inclined to, using the down-the-line and the inside-out forehands to end points. Many of these had been set up by bravely deep strokes that can only be hit on trained instinct. This can't happen when the mind seeks to baby-sit the stroke — and this happens often under pressure even at the highest level. Clearly, Nadal had sequestered himself from anxiety.

But matches between competitors as closely matched as these two seldom stay linear. Where every other tennis player makes peace with his fate when Nadal has a lead, Djokovic rails against it. Outwardly his shoulders might droop, his head might drop, and he might even gesture to his entourage as if it were too tough. But somehow, particularly since 2011, he has found a way to come back against Nadal, the most merciless of finishers. The turnaround was both physical and mental — Djokovic got fitter and technically better, which gave him the confidence to trust himself to find the right response. That he has similar strengths to Nadal helps him: for one, Nadal hasn't a safe place to go, like has with Federer, high to the one-handed backhand; for another, he's just as good as Nadal at making a rally-neutralising and sometimes even a rally-turning stroke when on the run and out of position. Only against Djokovic does Nadal feel the frustration others experience when playing him, Nadal.

Favourite hero... Nadal poses with ball boys and girls after winning the men's singles final.-AP

This is precisely what happened at 0-2 in the third set. Djokovic went on a tear, winning eight games in a row. Nadal looked visibly dazed — the way he had played these games suggested that the old doubts had re-emerged. Fortunately, that bit of History backing him intervened in the form of rain. You can't say with certainty how the match would have gone had there been no interruption, but there's no doubt that Djokovic had the momentum. “I said, ‘Good, we've had some luck. If we hadn't stopped, we were going home,'” said Nadal's uncle and coach, Toni. “Because Rafael was a bit blocked and Djokovic wasn't missing any balls. He was hitting them all well. So we had some luck.”

When the match resumed the next day, Nadal had refocused himself; unlike the previous day, it was Djokovic that was complaining about the drizzle. Where the Serb had driven the Spaniard away from the baseline in those eight games, taking Nadal's time away from him, he conceded court to him as the fourth set progressed. In the end, for the first time in the match, there was an inevitability to it. Djokovic might have stripped Nadal of his invincibility in 2011 and at this year's Australian Open. But at Roland Garros, Nadal found that his best, at least on clay, was good enough.

“After the (2011) U.S. Open, I said I knew what I had to do to win. Now the question is: ‘Am I capable of doing that?'” Nadal said after his triumph. “In Australia, I was not in very good shape, mentally speaking. I could have won, but for mental reasons I had lost. I was not in the best mental status. You have to find your moments. With Novak, I say the same thing. It is not possible to be perfect every time, to be 100 percent every tournament. I'm going to keep having chances to win. I produced a lot of chances to win last year, but I lost almost every one. Now, I'm here. I made it. I did everything I could to win this match.”

* * * FRENCH OPEN MOST MEN'S TITLES Rafael Nadal 7 (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011 & 2012) Bjorn Borg 6 (1974, 1975, 1978, 1979, 1980 & 1981) Gustavo Kuerten 3 (1997, 2000 & 2001) Ivan Lendl 3 (1984, 1986 & 1987) Mats Wilander 3 (1982, 1985 & 1988) Rene Lacoste 3 (1925, 1927 & 1929) * * * THE MAJORS: LEADING WINNERS

16: Roger Federer (Switzerland) – Australian Open 4, Wimbledon 6,

French Open 1 and U.S. Open 5.

14: Pete Sampras (USA) – Australian 2, Wimbledon 7, U.S. 5.

12: Roy Emerson (Australia) – Australian 6, French 2, Wimbledon 2, U.S. 2.

11: Bjorn Borg (Sweden) – French 6, Wimbledon 5.

11: Rod Laver (Australia) – Australian 3, French 2, Wimbledon 4, U.S. 2.

11: Rafael Nadal (Spain) – Australian 1, French 7, Wimbledon 2, U.S. 1.

10: Bill Tilden (USA) – Wimbledon 3, U.S. 7.

8: Andre Agassi (USA) – Australian 4, French 1, Wimbledon 1, U.S. 2.

8: Ivan Lendl (Czech) – Australian 2, French 3, U.S. 3.

8: Fred Perry (Great Britain) – Australian 1, French 1, Wimbledon 3, U.S. 3.

8: Ken Rosewall (Australia) – Australian 4, French 2, U.S. 2.

* * * NADAL'S MAJORS AUSTRALIAN OPEN

2009: beat Roger Federer 7–5, 3–6, 7–6 (7–3), 3–6, 6–2.

FRENCH OPEN

2005: beat Mariano Puerta 6–7 (6–8), 6–3, 6–1, 7–5.

2006: beat Roger Federer 1–6, 6–1, 6–4, 7–6 (4).

2007: beat Roger Federer 6–3, 4–6, 6–3, 6–4. 2008: beat Roger Federer 6–1, 6–3, 6–0. 2010: beat Robin Soderling 6–4, 6–2, 6–4.

2011: beat Roger Federer 7–5, 7–6 (7–3), 5–7, 6–1.

2012: beat Novak Djokovic 6–4, 6–3, 2–6, 7–5. WIMBLEDON

2008: beat Roger Federer 6–4, 6–4, 6–7 (5–7), 6–7 (8–10), 9–7

2010: beat Tomas Berdych 6–3, 7–5, 6–4. U.S. OPEN 2010: beat Novak Djokovic 6–4, 5–7, 6–4, 6–2.