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, 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 his 67 career matches at the French Open.
And since his only defeat, 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 the four majors in tennis.
“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 after fans shouted during the Serb’s service motion. “It’s normal that you have ups and downs.”
Nadal ensured that he, not Djokovic, will be ranked No. 1 today. And in the process, Nadal once again prevented six-time major champion Djokovic from completing a career Grand Slam.
“Sorry for him today. I think 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, but beating Nadal in the best-of-five format at the French Open is a whole other matter.
Nadal also beat 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.
For 3 1⁄2 hours Sunday, when the sky was crystal clear and the temperature touched 80 degrees, Djokovic gave everything he had, even spitting up on court in the final set.
“I played at the maximum of my power, my strength and my capability,” Djokovic said, “but Rafa was the best player on the court.”
Using his backhand to great effect against Nadal’s forehand early, Djokovic grabbed the first set, and got to 5-5 in the second. That is when everything changed. Knowing that overcoming a two-set hole might be too much even for him, Nadal raised his level, taking 20 of 26 points to claim that set and a 3-0 lead in the third.
When a down-the-line forehand winner ended the second set, Nadal leaped and shook both fists, his first sign of real emotion. Djokovic, meanwhile, was his usual animated self. He rapped his knuckles on his temple. He chastised himself aloud. He spiked his racket, drawing whistles from spectators.
“The momentum went [to] his side,” Djokovic said. “I started playing quite bad, and didn’t move as well. Struggled a little bit, physically, throughout that third set.”
That was apparent. His cheeks were flushed. He put his hand on his heaving chest. He wobbled and nearly fell over while sitting on his changeover bench. Later, he dumped water on his head and arms.
Still, after trailing, 4-2, in the fourth, Djokovic made one last stand. As skilled a retriever as his formidable foe — Djokovic won 10 of the first 15 points that lasted at least 10 strokes — he came up with a desperation defensive lob that landed right near the baseline, drawing a netted overhead from Nadal to earn a break point. When Djokovic produced a terrific return that led to an errant forehand, he looked skyward. Now it was 4-4.
But Nadal steadied himself to hold to 5-4, then broke one last time. Soon enough, he was clutching the French Open trophy, his trophy.