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June 12, 2012

TENNIS: Nadal passes Borg with seventh French title

June 12, 2012 7:00 a.m. PARIS — Rafael Nadal was worried.

A guy so unflinching, so nearly unbeatable, while sliding and grinding and pounding his way past opponent after opponent at the French Open, got a real case of nerves during the 18 hours he and Novak Djokovic waited for the restart of their rain-interrupted final at Roland Garros.

Instead of focusing on how close he was to winning a record seventh French Open championship, Nadal grew increasingly wary of the other possible outcome: a loss in a fourth consecutive Grand Slam final against Djokovic, who was trying to become the first man since 1969 to collect four straight major titles.

When play was halted by showers on Sunday, Nadal was clinging to an ever-shrinking lead. It wasn’t until a few minutes before setting foot back on Court Philippe Chatrier, his favorite arena at his favorite tournament on his favorite surface, that Nadal set aside his anxiety. Oh, did he. The King of Clay overwhelmed the No.1-ranked Djokovic for the 50 minutes and nine games they played Monday, wrapping up a 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 victory that allowed Nadal to earn French Open trophy No. 7, breaking a tie with Bjorn Borg.

“You never know if you’re going to win another one,” said the second-ranked Nadal, who now owns 11 Grand Slam titles.

“I don’t know if I am the best or not,” he added. “I am not the right one to say that.”

Djokovic, for his part, had zero doubts. He worked his way back into the match with an eight-game run when it was pouring Sunday, but otherwise was outplayed, at the start and the finish.

“He’s definitely (the) best player in history ... on this surface,” said Djokovic, whose 27-match Grand Slam winning streak ended, “and results are showing that he’s one of the best ever.”

Can’t argue with that. Since his French Open debut at age 18 in May 2005, Nadal is 52-1 for his career at the tournament, the only loss coming to Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009. He’s just as good elsewhere on clay, too: Nadal’s won eight titles at Monte Carlo, seven at Barcelona, six at Rome.

Asked to explain his success on the surface, Nadal pointed not to his uppercut of a topspin-slathered forehand, or his superior returns of serve, but rather to his movement, his mental fortitude, and this: “I always was scared to lose.”

Djokovic gave Nadal reason for added concern, having beaten him in the finals at Wimbledon in July, the U.S. Open in September, and the Australian Open in January. Djokovic was attempting to be only the third man to win four major tournaments in succession, joining Don Budge in 1938, and Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969.

Alas, Djokovic ran into Nadal at Roland Garros. The same thing happened to Roger Federer in 2006 and 2007, when his Grand Slam bids fell one win short because of losses to Nadal in the French Open final.

“For us, it was very important to win here now against Djokovic, because we knew that if he won again, the fourth one, then (Rafa) completing a Grand Slam of losses would have been ugly,” said Toni Nadal, Rafael’s uncle and coach. “And we were very close to doing that.”

Instead, his nephew gained ground on Federer’s record of 16 Grand Slam titles, tying Borg and Laver for fourth place.

Borg walked away from the sport at age 25 after losing the 1981 Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals to John McEnroe.

“If Borg had kept playing until he was 30, he might have won 10 French Opens — something Nadal could wind up doing if he keeps playing,” said Corrado Barazzutti, a top-10 player in the 1970s who lost all 10 career matches against the Swede.

“Borg was a player who, particularly on red clay, was unbeatable, in my opinion. Facing him on a court was like being trapped in a tunnel. It was dark. You couldn’t move,” Barazzutti said. “That must be what it’s like to play Nadal.”

If so, Nadal was much worse off Sunday when strong showers left the court slippery and the tennis balls heavy and clay-streaked. Djokovic, outclassed at the outset, emerged at his go-for-broke best, pushing around Nadal, who dropped a set for the only time in the tournament.

After Nadal held serve to get within 2-1 in the fourth set, they were sent home for the night, pushing the French Open beyond Sunday for the first time since 1973.

“We got lucky,” Uncle Toni conceded.

By noon Monday, an hour before play resumed, normally bustling Roland Garros was eerily empty. Souvenir stands were shuttered. Green barriers blocked access to a pathway leading to several courts. There were hundreds of unclaimed seats in the stands at the main stadium, and thick, gray clouds loomed overhead when the players stepped out.

Well-rested, they opened with a crescendo: The first point contained eight strokes, the third had 11, the fourth had 16, and the fifth had 21, ending with Djokovic’s errant forehand that gave Nadal a chance to break. Djokovic kept right on swinging his racket, pounding himself in the noggin with his strings three times. (On Sunday, he vented frustration by whacking his racket on his green sideline bench so violently a chunk of the furniture flew off.)

On the next point, Nadal’s shot slapped the white tape atop the net and trickled over. Djokovic got to the ball but couldn’t do much, setting up Nadal for a cross-court backhand passing winner.

That was the break Nadal needed, and this was the Nadal everyone is accustomed to seeing charge around Roland Garros. There’s a reason the back of his left shoe was etched with the outline of a bull’s horns; the back of his right one was stamped with a black, bold “6,” signifying his number of French Open titles entering Monday.

Even a passing shower that the players waited out on the sideline didn’t slow Nadal on this afternoon. He’s from the island of Mallorca, and loves to spend his rare downtime playing golf or hanging out at the beach or fishing.

Maybe it was fitting, then, that pieces of blue sky peeked out from behind the clouds as Monday’s end neared.

With Djokovic trailing 6-5, and serving to try to force a tiebreaker, Nadal smacked a forehand winner to get to match point. Djokovic saved four match points in the quarterfinals, but there would be no such reprieve this time.

Instead, Djokovic double-faulted, an anticlimactic ending to a highly anticipated match filled with awkward stops and starts because of the uncooperative weather.

Nadal dropped to his knees and covered his face, thick strips of white tape covering the knuckles and fingertips of his racket-wielding left hand. He rose, chucked his racket, and clambered into the stands for a group hug with his father and various members of his entourage. Then he leaped into Toni’s arms, spilling his uncle’s bottle of water.

“When you lose, it’s because you don’t deserve the title,” Nadal said. “So in my mind, this was the final I had to win.  That’s why I was so emotional.”

Nearly two hours later, Nadal and more than a dozen others gathered on the court for a photo session of the sort you might see at a wedding. First, everyone stood together for a picture, Nadal cradling the trophy. Then came various two-person poses: Rafa with Dad; Rafa with Uncle Toni; Rafa with his buddy Pau Gasol of the Los Angeles Lakers.  

Might seem a tad over-the-top for a guy who’s done this so many times.

Then again, you only win your seventh French Open trophy once.

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