After all the consecutive victories and the confidently clenched fists, after the new hires and the new attitude, the 2014 French Open was just another red-clay rerun for Novak Djokovic. He arrived in Paris full of fresh and legitimate hope. He will depart again without the trophy, which is officially called the Coupe des Mousquetaires but which is clearly in need of a name change at this belief-beggaring stage of the tournament’s history.
In the modern era, no man has had a tighter grip on a Grand Slam event than Rafael Nadal, whose 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 victory over Djokovic allowed him to win his ninth French Open by the age of just 28. Djokovic, trying to complete his collection of major singles titles, was far from his consistent, suffocating best. But so was Nadal, and this final was, in a sense, a condensed, 3-hour-30-minute version of his trying clay-court season.
He struggled early with his ground strokes and his nerve but steadily gathered strength and belief: whipping his trademark forehand with familiar force down the stretch despite the heat, pressure and fatigue, and finally dropping to his knees in triumph, his taped fingers covering his face.
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There were also tears, quite a few of them — if it seems he is starting to feel blasé after nine titles in 10 years — as he stood on the podium at Philippe Chatrier Court and listened to the Spanish national anthem. “I knew I had lost four times in a row to Novak, and to be able to win again against him was very important to me,” Nadal said. “I had enough courage. I made the right decisions at the right moment and ended up on top. It’s an emotional moment, a real mix of things.”
Nadal is now tied with Pete Sampras for second on the career list with 14 Grand Slam singles titles, and he is now only three behind the leader, Roger Federer, who has 17.
“That’s true, but I’ll repeat what I always say: that this is not something that worries me or motivates me,” said Nadal, who planned to head to the grass-court tuneup in Halle, Germany, on Monday to prepare for Wimbledon.
“I’m following my path, and when my career is over, then we’ll count them up.” Nadal might already have 15 major titles if he had not had a back problem in the final of this year’s Australian Open, where he was upset by the Swiss veteran Stan Wawrinka.
“It was a very hard moment, so today the tennis give me back what happened in Australia,” Nadal said, although he made it clear that he would not necessarily have won if healthy.
Still, he said, the defeat knocked the desire out of him for weeks, and there were other hard moments on the road to Roland Garros, including an unprecedented three defeats in places that are usually his strongholds including Djokovic in the Rome final.
That was Djokovic’s fourth straight victory over Nadal, but Djokovic, the elastic Serbian, has previously arrived in Paris on a clay-court roll and faltered. And he has now lost two of the last three French Open finals to Nadal and suffered a string of tough defeats in Grand Slam tournaments.
Djokovic’s career record at Roland Garros is a bright and shiny 42-10, but it dulls compared with Nadal’s 66-1 record there, and 90-1 record in best-of-five-set clay-court matches. This victory over the second-seeded Djokovic allowed Nadal to retain the No. 1 ranking.