Nadal in supreme shape for decisive final test
TENNIS FRENCH OPEN:SO, WE have the final from heaven: Novak Djokovic, reaching for his fourth straight Slam, against Rafael Nadal, whose ownership of Roland Garros will be complete if he can win his seventh title in eight years here tomorrow.
And there can be no argument that this is the way it should be. The sad sight of Roger Federer’s fighting, faltering capitulation in three sets 6-4, 7-5, 6-3, in the second semi-final on Court Philippe Chatrier could not detract from the superiority of Djokovic, who beat him 101 points to 76 and who has emerged through a tournament trial of 16 hours and five minutes. Indeed, he took twice as long to beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarter-finals – four hours and nine minutes – as he spent disposing of Federer.
It was easy to forget while he was dismantling the world number three he had to save four match points against Tsonga to get here.
“It is a dream for me, my first final at Roland Garros,” Djokovic said at courtside in his fledgling French. “Now I like to enjoy this win, and think later about the final. Rafael was very, very good today.”
Nadal’s even swifter daylight mugging (one hour and 46 minutes) of his friend David Ferrer 6-2, 6-2, 6-1, was as written in stone for the loser as it was ominous for Djokovic. It is unreasonable to expect the finalists to reproduce their marathon of five months ago in Melbourne, although it would be a fitting conclusion to the tournament as well as a worthy addition to their rivalry, which stands at 18-14 in Nadal’s favour.
This was Nadal’s 16th win over Ferrer in 20 contests, but it was no contest at all. As obdurate as the sixth-best player in the world was – this was not dissimilar to Ferrer’s fighting performance in beating Andy Murray in the quarter-finals – it was optimistic expecting him to give Nadal a tougher time than anyone has managed over the past fortnight.
Ferrer won just five games, the least he has managed against Nadal in a five-set match, and equalling that of his two-set defeat at Monte Carlo in 2010. But Nadal’s previous five opponents over the past fortnight managed 30 between them, and only Simone Bollelli in the first round (when Nadal was still cranking up) has broken his serve.
“You cannot expect to win semi-finals like this,” Nadal said in unconvincing disbelief, “against one of the best players in the world and one of my best friends on tour.”
If he does this to his friends, imagine what he might do to Djokovic, someone for whom he cares not quite so much. He is in a rare mood, almost at his level of 2010, when John McEnroe said, “there is an argument to be made that Rafael Nadal may be the greatest player eventually, even possibly now”. His near-rival then was Federer. Not any more.
Certainly Nadal is playing at a higher intensity and is physically sharper than he was last year, when Djokovic was his master.
Once he tapped into a rhythm after a slow start against Ferrer, there was little bar a five-day deluge that could interrupt his blazing-eyed progress to the final. As it happened, the skies opened midway through to give Ferrer a short reprieve. Unlike after the rain break against Murray, though, he returned defanged.
There were a few moments to lighten the experience. At 30-all in the third game of the second set, Nadal played another of those rescue shots that occasionally emanate from his magic racket: from a sitting position, almost under the net, to lengthen a 27-shot rally, followed by a lob, but not this time consummated in the point.
It mattered not a jot. It was the biggest semi-final hiding in a Grand Slam since Federer beat Jonas Bjorkman 2, 0 and 2 at Wimbledon in 2006.
Looking for comparable ownership of a single tournament takes us back to Bjorn Borg’s win here in 1978, when he gave up just 32 games, including one in the semi-final against the seventh seed, Corrado Barazzutti, and five in the final against the second seed, Guillermo Villas.
If Nadal wins tomorrow (and there will be no money flowing from this quarter in denial of the evidence), he will pull one French title clear of Borg’s six. What a match they could have given us on clay had their careers coincided.
“I feel sorry for him,” Nadal said later of Ferrer. “I played probably my best match of the tournament. I work hard all my life to enjoy moments like this. I feel good. I am having a very good season. Tried to be focused, tried to be humble.”
Maybe being humble – of which there should be no doubt – is Nadal’s greatest victory.