Djokovic's Nerves No Match For Nadal in Paris
What does it feel like to be Rafael Nadal at the French Open?
Is it like pitching a no-hitter every game? Bowling a 300 time after time? Channeling the 1972 Miami Dolphins for four consecutive years?
Certainly Novak Djokovic has no idea, especially after failing to live up to his own champion standards or the stratospheric plane Nadal has established on clay in Paris.
“That's a question for him,” said Djokovic when I asked him how he thought it might feel to be undefeated on such a grand stage after he put up resistance only in the third set in a 6-4, 6-2, 7-6 (3) loss. “I still don't know how he feels.”
Indeed, who does?
Impossible as it seems, Nadal, now 27-0 at the French Open, is improving on dirt. The evidence was all over the place Friday on Philippe Chartrier court. The 22-year-old Spaniard found his spots with his serve, went side to side to dig sure-winners out of the corners, and pinned the third-ranked Serb to the baseline with his biting forehand. Mentally, he rarely blinked, even though his No. 2 ranking was again on the line - not to mention his Paris perfection.
Djokovic seemed tentative at the outset, and though he got twice as many games – 12 – as Nadal’s last two opponents combined, he never really found his rhythm. The 20-year-old misfired more than usual and led Nadal 28-16 in unforced errors. But it was his lowly 54% first-serve percentage that really undermined his effort. That just won’t get the job done against a returner like Nadal, whose 66-16 winners-to-unforced errors ratio shows how ready he was for the challenge.
“Best match at Roland Garros so far,” pronounced the cheery-yet-determined Rafa at the post-match press conference.
The Spaniard’s only lapse came when he was up two breaks and 3-0 in the third set. Djokovic started to take more risks and it paid off for a while, as Nadal’s penetrating balls lost some distance. The 22-year-old Mallorca native had to fight off a set point with a crosscourt forehand winner in the 11th game. Who knows what might have happened if Djokovic had clawed his way into a fourth set. But Nadal changed his tactics in the breaker, raising his level and racing out to an insurmountable 6-0 lead.
"I tried to go more inside,” he said of his decision to press into the court and be more aggressive.
Both physically and mentally, it was Rafa, not the Serb with the unshakable self-belief, who melted under the pressure, going down a third straight time at Roland Garros and a fifth time on clay. The reigning Australian Open champ more or less admitted it in the post match press conference, saying the combined physical and mental strain had made him literally ill.
“On the court,” he said, “I didn’t feel well.”
It’s a stunning admission from a player with such confidence and ambition, who has the ability, as fourth-round victim Paul-Henri Mathieu said, to “suffocate” opponents. On clay, Nadal is the boa constrictor.
In other words, Nadal, as he has for four seasons, rose to the occasion. Now he is a match from tying Bjorn Borg’s record of four straight French Opens, which the Swede set from 1978-81. Borg was in the first row of the presidential box, but the Masher from Manacor was too preoccupied with keeping his record streak of 150 weeks at No. 2 alive to notice.
“Today I didn't see no one,” said Nadal, breaking up the press corps, when asked if he’d recognized the silver-haired guy with six French Open crowns just a few feet away.
Nadal now enters the final against Federer (who beat French hope Gael Monfils 6-2, 5-7, 6-3, 7-5) having dropped nary a set while giving up an average of fewer than five games per match – heady stuff. The Swiss No. 1 – who has lost eight of nine contests on clay vs. Nadal - will have to figure a way to go through an opponent who appears impenetrable.
When he clinched match point against Djokovic with an overhead, Nadal crumpled to his back in jubilation as if he’d just won the final. Maybe in his mind, the surging Serb was the man to beat. Either way, it’s hard to see how he won’t repeat the action Sunday.