PARIS – Trying to beat Rafael Nadal at the French Open is, without a doubt, the toughest task in tennis. Indeed, it must be among the greatest challenges in all of sports.
The pressure he applies, from set to set, game to game, point to point, shot to shot. That bullwhip of a high-bouncing, topspin lefty forehand. Those quick-reflex returns that help him break an opponent’s serve – and his will.
Doing what he does so well on the red clay of Roland Garros, a surface and site he dominates so completely, the No. 1-seeded Nadal wore down No. 2 Novak Djokovic 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 in a muggy final Sunday to win his ninth French Open championship and fifth in a row, both records.
“For me,” Nadal said, “playing here in Roland Garros is just unforgettable, forever.”
It is also his 14th Grand Slam title overall, tying the 28-year-old Spaniard with Pete Sampras for the second-most by a man, behind only Roger Federer’s 17.
That includes Nadal’s two trophies apiece at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, along with one from the Australian Open, proving he can beat the best on grass and hard courts, too. But it’s on the clay of Paris where Nadal reigns supreme: He has won 66 of 67 career French Open matches.
Since the only loss, against Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009, Nadal has won 35 consecutive matches at Roland Garros.
No other man has won more than seven titles at any of tennis’ four majors.
“It’s not impossible, but it’s very, very difficult to stay with Rafa in this court, throughout the whole match, on the highest level of performance,” said Djokovic, who was broken in the final game of each set, including with an anticlimactic double-fault on match point.
Nadal ensured that he, not Djokovic, will be ranked No. 1 today. In the process, Nadal once again prevented six-time major champion Djokovic from completing a career Grand Slam.
“He deserves to win this tournament,” Nadal said. “I am sure he will do it in the future.”
Djokovic had won their four most recent matches, including on clay in the best-of-three-set final at Rome last month.
Beating Nadal in best-of-five is a whole other matter.
Nadal also topped Djokovic in the 2012 final, and the 2013 semifinals. In all, Nadal leads Djokovic 6-0 at the French Open, 9-3 at major tournaments, and 23-19 in total. No other pair of men has played each other as often.
The defeat in Rome was one of three this season on clay for Nadal, raising questions about whether he’d be unbeatable at Roland Garros this time.