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PARIS – The genesis of the seminal moment on historic Court Philippe Chatrier late Wednesday afternoon came nearly two weeks before, a few hundred metres away and one floor below ground at the official French Open draw.
As Maria Sharapova stood on the podium and prepared to draw the names of players seeded No. 5 through No. 8 out of the bowl, everyone knew what was at stake.
If No. 6 seed Rafael Nadal – relegated to the second division by virtue of a sub-par clay-court season by his illustrious standards – was picked first, he would go into the same quarter of the draw as world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, meaning they could meet prematurely in the quarter-finals.
Nadal’s agent and PR manager snuck in, taking seats a couple of rows behind Nadal, who sat there impassively. There was a 25 per cent chance it would happen.
A gasp, a collective intake of breath, was heard in the hall. Two days the French Open even started, the narrative was created.
Before the first ball was struck, Djokovic was the punter’s choice to win a potential showdown even given Nadal’s nine titles here, even given Djokovic’s dominant season.
But as the tournament progressed, as Nadal looked efficient and, at times, like his old self against lesser competition, that certainty seemed to waver. Surely, on the court he has virtually owned for the last decade, he could channel his vintage self and meet the challenge head on, with his 10th French Open title at stake.
Nadal could not. He couldn’t even come close; the 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 Djokovic victory felt like a letdown given the majestic, marathon matches in their history. But it was a moment few will forget, because it was confirmation that Nadal, in 2015, is as vulnerable as he has ever been.
It seemed so going in. But until Nadal failed to hold the trophy on the final day, there was no way to know for sure. In this place, on this day, it was confirmed in bittersweet fashion.
“I think, yeah, I had my moments, but in general, Novak (had it) under control most of the time. So he was better than me. That's it. Here is simple: when the opponent plays better than you and is in better shape than you, then (it) can happen. That happened, and I just congratulate him,” Nadal said.
The Mallorcan didn’t tarry in coming into his press conference. He entered, juggling three bottles of water, still wiping the sweat of his effort from his forehead, and tried to put the significance of all this into some kind of context despite it all having happened less than a half-hour before.
There was no way he could. Only with a historical glance backward will we really know if this was the day when the 29-year-old – Wednesday was his birthday, as it happens – became mortal, the moment when he, like the five-years-older Roger Federer, began his inevitable losing battle with Father Time.
It very well might not be now; certainly, as Federer has so stubbornly shown, when it does happen, it might be a beginners’ slope rather than a double-diamond descent.
Wednesday’s loss came as no surprise to Nadal, who has never taken anything for granted in his career despite his nearly bulletproof status in Paris.
“Is not a big surprise, no, after (a) year that I didn't win enough before here. Something that could happen. When you see the draw, quarterfinals against Novak, obvious that is early, a big match like that,” Nadal said. “I am happy the way that I recovered my level the last month, but probably not enough yet to play against and to win against Novak. To play, yes; I competed. But not to win.”
Nadal went down 0-4 in the blink of an eye – well, a few blinks; both players were so slow between points and chair umpire Cédric Mourier turned a blind eye to all of it. Then, Djokovic gave him an opening by surrendering the service game that would have given him a 5-0 lead.
Vintage Rafa, after that slow start, would have taken that hole and driven his Aston Martin right through it. He did catch up; but Djokovic took the first set. And then he took the second set.
There was nothing to indicate Nadal might have a comeback in him. He was doing nothing to hurt Djokovic, perhaps the finest rallier, the finest groundstroker men’s tennis has ever seen.
When Djokovic broke Nadal to start the third set, Nadal’s spirit was broken along with it.
He himself was not particularly happy with his effort level, understandably so. Nadal may lose tennis matches, but rarely does he ever throw in one of his two towels.
“Well, first break (in the third set) was very painful for me. After that, everything was too quick,” he said. Then he sighed. And then, he paused. “You know, it's circumstances. You know, the match, everything goes in his way. You know, a few points that was important points, he won (those) points.”
At that point, Nadal no longer was himself, no longer moved like himself, no longer was fighting like himself; rather, he was fighting himself, or the self he has become in 2015.
It ended with a Nadal double-fault, only his second of the match.
In 2009, the only other time Nadal lost here (to Robin Soderling of Sweden, in the fourth round), there were – well, there were circumstances. He wrote later on in his autobiography that he was severely thrown off track by his parents’ separation. There were physical issues that might not have seemed evident at the time but were later proven to be significant as he not only did he miss Wimbledon, he didn’t return to the Tour until the Rogers Cup in mid-August.
This time, there were non caveats, no asterisks.
Nadal said there were no physical issues to deal with. And the loss, given their respective forms, wasn’t nearly the shocker the loss to Soderling was. More than his tennis, though, what was dented was Nadal's confidene.
To watch him on Wednesday was to realize just how deeply that cuts into his tennis being. And to look over on the other side of the net and see just the opposite in Djokovic, fresh, radiant, healthy, happy and in his absolute prime as a tennis player, merely drove the point home.
Djokovic made Nadal look … old? Slow? Jaded? Is that even possible? Nadal is only a year older than the Serb, but decades older in tennis terms because he has been at it, at the top, for so long.
For Djokovic, it was the strangest kind of victory, one he will have to work very hard mentally to turn the page on. For him, playing Nadal at the French Open is like a final. This time, with the biggest obstacle already hurdled, he still has to win two more matches in which he will be the prohibitive favourite before he holds up the Coupe des Mousquetaires.
"Right now I'm aware that this is a big win, which I will enjoy tonight," Djokovic said. "But tomorrow is a new day and I have to move on. It's only quarter-finals, and I want to fight for the title. That's what I came here for. I have to kind of direct my thoughts to the semis."
On Friday, it will be No. 3 seed Andy Murray. If Djokovic wins that, only Stan Wawrinka or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga would stand in the way of the Serb not only winning his first Roland Garros, but completing the career Grand Slam.
For Nadal, the quest for 10 is not over, merely postponed. Will he accept the fact that Djokovic is now by far the finest tennis player in the world, or will he make it his mission to show that it's not carved in stone for the foreseeable future?
“The only thing that is sure is I won nine times. I don't know if I gonna win 10, but nine I already won,” he said, to general laughter. “I gonna come back next year and I gonna try to be competitive, to try to be better prepared than this year, and try to arrive with a little bit more good confidence.
“And I gonna fight. I lost in 2009 and was not the end. I lost in 2015, and it’s not the end. I hope to be back here the next year with another chance,” he said.