2012 was a tough yet memorable year in Rafael Nadal’s career. The Mallorcan had to miss the entire second half of the season, including the London Olympics, due to a left knee injury. At the end of the year, he finished outside the top 2 for the first time since 2004.
He had two tough Grand Slam finals against Serbian World No. 1 Novak Djokovic. Memories of one of them, a devastating loss, resurfaced earlier this year when Nadal was down by two sets before coming back to beat Russia’s Daniil Medvedev in the Australian Open final to clinch a record-breaking 21st Major.
The other was a rain-interrupted four-setter at the end of which Nadal won his seventh French Open title.
Nadal’s clay-court season prior to 2012 French Open
As he had done in the last seven years, World No. 2 Nadal began his 2012 clay-court season with a record-extending eighth consecutive Monte Carlo Masters title, without dropping a set. In the final, he thrashed Djokovic 6-3, 6-1 in just one hour 19 minutes.
READ: Nadal’s 13 French Open Titles Part Six - 2011
He followed it up with a seventh title in Barcelona. Again, no sets dropped, but the crown in the Catalonian capital came after grinding out a 7-6 (1), 7-5) win over World No. 6 David Ferrer in an all-Spanish summit clash.
Here's a compilation of Rafael Nadal's 13 French Open Titles
His next event was the Madrid Masters where Nadal’s biggest concern, to everyone’s surprise, was the colour of the clay. The clay in Madrid was not the usual reddish one. It was blue, made after iron oxide and other metals were extracted from red brick to create a white brick, which was then baked, crushed, filtered and dyed. Tournament owner Ion Tiriac had indicated it was done to improve the visibility for spectators and the TV audience. Tournament director Gerard Tsobanian told the Spanish newspaper ABC that colour did not have any impact on the characteristics of the clay courts, which already behaved differently in different cities.
On May 10, Nadal had his earliest exit from a clay court event since losing to Olivier Mutis in the second round in Palermo, Italy, in 2004 as he went down to compatriot Fernando Verdasco. Nadal’s 3-6, 6-3, 5-7 third-round loss to Verdasco came after he blew a 5-2 lead in the final set, giving Verdasco his first victory in the duo’s 14 meetings. Their last one before this had been the semifinal in Barcelona a week ago where Nadal had easily triumphed 6-0, 6-4.
In the post-match press conference, Nadal suggested he might not return next year unless there was something done about the clay in Madrid. He said. “Movement is very important for me and I couldn't move. I couldn't hit the ball the way I wanted. I lost because I deserved to lose.”
FROM THE ARCHIVES: Judgement of Paris
“The ATP and the tournament can do what they want, I tried my best, I've trained here since Thursday. I was as prepared as I could be. I was not good enough to adapt my game to this court. If things continue like this, it will be very sad. Next year this will be one less event for my calendar.”
Not only Nadal but Djokovic and Serena Williams too criticised the change in colour of the surface.
Nadal wrapped up his preparation for the French Open with a sixth title in Rome where he beat Djokovic in the final.
2012 French Open
Six-time champion and second seed Nadal began his campaign at Roland Garros with a series of comfortable wins. After a 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 win over Italian World No. 119 Simon Bolelli in the first round, he brushed aside Uzbekistan’s Denis Istomin 6-2, 6-2, 6-0 in the second.
His third-round opponent was Argentine World No. 192 Eduardo Schwank, who had made it to the main draw after three gruelling matches in the qualifying round. Schwank had beaten higher-ranked players in Ivo Karlovic and Florian Mayer in the main draw but for Nadal, he was no match.
The Spaniard continued his march with a brutal 6-2, 6-0, 6-0 win over World No. Juan Monaco, another Argentine. In the final eight clash, compatriot Nicolas Almagro took Nadal to a tiebreaker in the first set but that was the end of his resistance as the next two sets were pretty one-sided.
Nadal faced Ferrer in the semifinals and unlike Barcelona, simply ran through the match dropping just five games.
READ: Nadal’s 13 French Open Titles Part Five - 2010
While the Spaniard’s run to the final was as dominating as it could be, it was the exact opposite for top-seeded Djokovic. The Serbian had to go through five-set battles against Italian Andreas Seppi (fourth round) and Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (quarterfinals). Against the latter, he was forced to save four match points. Djokovic booked his place in the summit clash by avenging 2011's semifinal defeat against Swiss World No. 3 Roger Federer in style. He dismantled Federer in straight sets in two hours.
Nadal and Djokovic were set to face each other in the final of a fourth consecutive Major, the first such instance in men’s tennis in the Open era. Djokovic had won the previous three, including a marathon five hours 53 minutes Australian Open final which is the longest ever Grand Slam final.
Going into the 2012 French Open final, both Nadal and Djokovic had the opportunity to make history. While Djokovic could become the first man since 1969 to hold all four Majors at the same time, Nadal could become the most decorated French Open champion, surpassing Swedish legend and six-time champion Bjorn Borg.
On June 10, a week after he turned 26, Nadal took a 6-4, 5-3 lead against Djokovic in the final on the Philippe Chatrier court when rain stopped play. When the match resumed, he broke Djokovic to take the second set and carried the momentum to win the first two games in the third. No one could quite believe what happened next as the Serbian reeled off six games in a row to win the third set. It looked like Djokovic was ready to take this to five sets as he moved into a 2-1 lead in the fourth but a second rain interruption and fading light meant that the match was to be resumed the next day.
Nadal later admitted that the rain delaying the final overnight had made him nervous and anxious.
However, it probably did more damage to the Serbian as Nadal broke Djokovic to make it 2-2 when the play continued the next day. The two then held their serve until Nadal, leading 6-5, sensed the opportunity to go for the kill. At 30-all on Djokovic’s serve, Nadal attacked and finished the rally with a forehand to earn a match point. The Spaniard need not do anything post that forehand as Djokovic double faulted to gift him the win.
“Borg is one of the greatest of history, so for me, the comparison with the great Bjorn is fantastic,” Nadal told atptour.com after his record-breaking seventh title.
“It is a real emotional day, winning another time here. Sure, the seventh is important because I am the player who has more today, but like I said yesterday: that’s after. For me, the important thing is to win Roland Garros even if it’s the first, second, third, or seventh [time].”