PARIS – One day, on that third Sunday of the French Open, Rafael Nadal will not be the last one left standing, taking his iconic bite out of the Coupe des Mousquetaires.
That day was not today.
An emotional, physically-drained Nadal defeated an emotional, even-more-physically-drained Novak Djokovic 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 to win his ninth title at Roland Garros after a three-hour, 31-minute match that had its moments of drama, but won't zoom to the top of the list of their finest efforts against each other.
It was Nadal's fifth straight French Open title after that shocking loss in 2009 and his 14th major, tying him with Pete Sampras.
The sudden heat wave in Paris was a shock to both of their finely-tuned systems. These are players who went more than five and a half hours in the Australian heat, yet this sudden burst of Paris summer left them gasping at times.
"The day was very tough, very humid, and the combination of two weeks of cold with the drastic change of yesterday and today, this was the first day we played in it. It affects us, affected our physical performance, and after one set and a half, we were both tired," Nadal said. "It was very important for me to win that second set. Without that second set, I don't think I would be sitting here with trophy now."
Djokovic appeared to pay the bigger price physically. And while he caught a second wind in the fourth set and threatened towards the end of it to take it the distance, it felt like a last gasp. For a few hours, the Serbian had already had that gaunt, haunted look he gets in hot conditions, the look of a man who is gluten-free, thin as a whippet, and as finely tuned as a Maserati. There isn't a lot of reserve there, and dealing with Nadal's game used up whatever there was.
But appearances might be deceiving in this case because Nadal was in pretty rough shape as well. On a couple of occasions, he grabbed his back. He was so weary that when he went for a comfort break after winning the third set, skipping off the court and screaming out a couple of "Vamos!" as he passed his people, he brought his racket with him – and forgot it in the bathroom.
Coach Toni Nadal told French television after that set that both players were really tired and that he could see his nephew was far from fresh. But as Djokovic got himself back into it, it seemed both would need to find something more.
"I did have the period of the match, end of the second and the whole third set I struggled a little bit. But as I said, 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," Djokovic said. "I started feeling a little bit better, but I wasn't managing to bring my A game when it was most needed at the end of the fourth."
Nadal was so pooped, he even jammed his right foot and nearly went over on his ankle celebrating after winning the 30-all point at 4-4. And it cost him the next point. But after he held serve, he looked up to his people, screamed at them and punched his heart so hard you were a little worried it might punch back.
But then, suddenly, it was over. From 30-love, Djokovic was at 30-40 on his serve at 4-5 and it was match point. A charmer in the crowd decided that yelling out something in the middle of Djokovic's second serve toss was a great idea. Djokovic gathered the toss, tried again – and double-faulted.
Nadal hit the deck before Djokovic's ball had even bounced twice, the tears instantaneous.
"For me, it’s amazing, emotional today. I lost the final of Australia this year, had a problem with my back in the final, was a very hard moment. So today the tennis gave me back what happened in Australia," Nadal said.
He was in tears through much of the early part of the trophy ceremony. Djokovic, also, was moved to tears as the crowd chanted his name for a long time during the official ceremonies. He took some deep breaths, he tried to keep his composure. But it was rough going.
"It is day full of emotions for me, for my team, I gave my maximum that I could, with all my power, all my capabilities, but Rafa was a better player on the court and I congratulate him for that," Djokovic told the crowd in French. "This trophy, it is not for us this year. But we will return next year, and return again and again, and I hope I will win Roland Garros one day."
Nadal's tears came again with the first notes of the Spanish national anthem. During his on-court speech, he said this: "Days like today, all the things I did to be here were more than (worth it)."
But the physical toll was marked. The dark circles were deeply sketched under his eyes. As the photographers set up the usual Nadal trophy poses, he stretched his right wrist in the opposite direction, and rubbed his right forearm strenuously, shaking it out repeatedly.
As he posed with the trophy, he kept moving the right arm, the one that lay across the top of the trophy, to try to find a more comfortable position – and perhaps try not to cramp up. Later, Uncle Toni said that his nephew told him his ear was even cramping. The pose below, where he attempted to lie down with the Coupe. was painful to watch – both Nadal assuming it, and getting out of it.
Still, Nadal did whatever was asked. He posed with the officials and the court attendants and signed just about everything anyone could throw in front of him.
But even when he finally made it in to his press conference, he looked uncomfortable trying to sit down.
Nadal did have enough energy left after the victory to hike himself up and find his family and supporters, who enveloped him in a massive hug. And he laid a long monologue on Uncle Toni, the look on his face unreadable, but definitely not one of joy and happiness.
That must have been quite a monologue.
For Djokovic, there will be a next year, and a year after that. A little bit like Federer before him, he won't rest until he wins this.
As hard as it is to imagine, some day Nadal won't be the one.
"Last year was emotional for a few things, this year was emotional for other ones. But for sure if you win Roland Garros it's always going to be emotional – and always when your age is older. It's not forever," Nadal said. "You will have a few more opportunities, yes, but you never know if you're going to win it again."