Is quite possible that some Rafarians enchant those red bricks even as they are being baked and crushed before they are spread on the limestone – gravel surface to prepare the Red Earth of Roland Garros. It is suspected that Rafael Nadal is a Martian which might explain his affinity for and invincibility on Red Clay. But what is certain is that his grit, his grip and his style of play are tailor-made for success on slow clay courts of Paris, Rome, Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Madrid.
Rafa has won 11 French Opens (since 2005) along with 11 titles each at Monte Carlo and Barcelona, 9 at Rome and 5 at Madrid. Clay season is now generally referred to as the Rafa Season. During May and early June, the Nadal phenomena reach its crescendo, even as the most common sight in the last decade and a half during this season is of the Spaniard biting into one trophy or another.
An intrepid adventurer once cast longing eyes upon Roland Garros. The Emperor of All Else desperately craved for a piece of real estate of Red Earth. The King of Clay zealously guarded his Parisian principality by hammering Roger Federer in one semifinal and then three consecutive finals between 2005-08. In 2009, the fortress fell because Rafa’s knee creaked, Soderling squeaked and Roger sneaked in to claim his only French Open title. Rafa restored order in the following year and kept pretenders at bay for the next five seasons. Djokovic finally vanquished Rafa in the quarter-final of 2015, and in the next year, the champ withdrew after second round owing to a wrist injury. But Monsieur Roland Garros’ spirit resumed his legendary hospitality towards Mr. Rafael Nadal in 2017, continued with it in 2018 and looks set to extend it in 2019. Rafa is the man to beat. Everybody in the circuit knows it. They also acknowledge that he is invincible when fully fit.
Novak Djokovic harbours high hopes going into this year’s French Open. He is World Number One, currently holds three Slams and is just a step away from winning all four Majors simultaneously. No one since Rod Laver had held all of them at the same time until Novak achieved the feat in 2015-16. He now has the chance to do the encore. Novak stands at the cusp of achieving for the second time what is now pejoratively referred to as Djoker Slam. This has not yet been done in the age of professionals. Neither Rafa, nor Roger has done it even once. Rod managed to do so twice, but only once (1969) in the Open era.
Novak is one of the two men who has defeated Nadal on Roland Garros. But he has also lost to him six times. Rafa overcame Novak’s pretensions in the quarter-final in 2006 and the semi-finals in 2007 and 2008. They played each other every year between 2012-15 – Rafa defeated Nole in 2012 and 2014 finals, and 2013 semi-final. Novak finally overcame Nadal in 2015 but had to wait for another year to claim his first and only French Open title. With that win, he had achieved the Djoker Slam. It is the same giant step where he stands today. Back then it was Andy Murray who stood against him, this time it is the trinity of Sascha Zverev, Thiem and finally Nadal who must be overcome.
Nadal leads Novak 17-7 on Clay. He has won the last three times they have sparred on clay- Madrid 2017, Rome 2018 and 2019. Nole’s loss to Rafa at Rome last month assumes relevance in this regard. The former has won the Madrid Masters this year, while Rafa somehow ended up losing three consecutive semis at Madrid, Monte Carlo, and Barcelona respectively. Rafa Express seemed distracted, if not derailed before the final match-up happened at Rome. The Mallorcan handed over a bagel to Novak in the first set and won his 34th Masters title. The quality of tennis was not quite up to mark, but Rafa clearly showed Novak who is the Boss on Clay. Arriveth the competition, riseth Rafa!
Djokovic has already achieved three impossibles – beating Rafa at Roland Garros, winning French Open and completing the Djoker Slam. It stands repugnant to reason and does not seem humanly possible to achieve these mindblowing feats twice in any career. Rafa is unbeaten in 11 finals at the French Open. It is obvious that he cannot be stopped at the final hurdle.
Novak can at best hope for a clay court classic like the Madrid 2009 semi-final which lasted for 4hrs and 2minutes, or the encore of French Open final of 2012 or the semi-final of 2013, all of which Nadal ended up winning despite being tested to the extremes.
Rafa anyways has some points of his own to prove. He always has, since he usually competes against himself. If he wins, he would become the first player in history to win any Grand Slam 12 times, leaving behind Margaret Court’s haul of 11 Australian Opens. With this win, Rafa might win his 18th Major, just two behind Roger and three ahead of Novak. This is too good a chance for Rafa to throw away, and when have we ever seen him do that?
Both players have eased through the draw so far. Nadal did lose a set versus Goffin but now faces an easy quarterfinal against Nishikori. He would then await the winner of Federer and Stan in the semis. The journey on the route to the final could not have been easier. A tricky quarterfinal against Sascha and a potential semi-final against the winner of Thiem and Khachanov await Djoker. Novak’s chances of reaching the final appear quite bleak. While the Fe-dal matchup seems on course in the first semi-final, Nov-Nad is not all that likely. It is Dominic Thiem, the nextgen challenger, who must be expected to put some kind of token resistance to Rafael Nadal, and best of luck to him.
All this notwithstanding, the way Novak is playing especially in grand slams of late, in case they meet in the Finals it will be Rafa who would be under pressure way much more. May the better player of the day win.
Abhinav Pancholi, IRS, Kolkata. The author is an avid sports lover with a passion for literature.
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