In the end it was not to be taken away. Not by rain or nerves or the seemingly impenetrable mental fortitude of Novak Djokovic.
For the record seventh time, Rafael Nadal hoisted the French Open trophy joyfully aloft and can now rightfully claim he is - inarguably - the greatest clay court player of all time. And with his victory Nadal also scored a measure of revenge against his great(est?) rival by finally defeating Djokovic in a Slam final after three consecutive championship losses at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and Australian Open.
This match by no means would fit into the category of a classic or epic, such as their six-hour marathon in Melbourne back in January. However it was still a bizarre, tension-filled, rain-delayed encounter, and it concluded in the most anticlimactic fashion, with a Djokovic double fault. The 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 decision was full of subtle, yet clear, shifts of momentum with Nadal finally executing a victorious strategy by refusing to let Djokovic dictate the match on his return game.
The match, which commenced as scheduled on Sunday afternoon in a heavy drizzle, started off with Nadal in utter control as he easily jumped to a 3-0 lead. But as has been the case the last 18 months, Djokovic nonchalantly cast aside the early deficit and immediately got himself back into the match, knotting the affair at 3-3. Yet Nadal again broke the shaky service game of Djokovic (in fact both players served erratically throughout the match, hence the reason for the 12 breaks of serve) and closed out the first set emphatically with blistering inside-out forehands.
The second set started much like the first with Nadal racing to an early break and Djokovic again coming back to even things. But Nadal quickly re-seized control of the momentum and was poised to take a commanding two-sets-to-none lead when the first rain delay occurred. At the time that seemed to bode well for Djokovic, to halt the proceedings and upset Nadal's rhythm with the delay, but Nadal returned form the brief half-hour interruption with focused undeterred and quickly notched the second set.
Yet suddenly, out of nowhere - yet completely in character with Djokovic's eerie ability to forge comebacks when all seems lost - the No. 1-ranked player suddenly found his game and, with it, a surge of confidence.
In one of the rarest sights one will ever glimpse in the sport, Nadal fell apart and became untethered. As Djokovic’s serve improved dramatically and he began to dictate points earlier in rallies with more aggressive court positioning and ball striking, he began to get into Nadal's head. Big time.
It is not often that Nadal loses his cool on the court (I can think of perhaps one other occasion) but as the steady drizzle made the courts slick and less to his liking, the 26 year-old Spaniard began to land his shots feebly in mid-court, allowing Djokovic to run him ragged. And then, after losing a remarkable eight consecutive games - on clay! - to drop the third set and a 2-0 deficit in the fourth, Nadal, in a fit of anger, castigated the tournament officials for allowing play to continue.
All during this remarkable stretch, Djokovic dominated by utilizing the strategy that Nadal once implemented so effectively against Roger Federer - pounding the ball relentlessly to Nadal's backhand. It worked brilliantly with Nadal finding himself frequently out of position, pinned deep in the backhand corner.
But then, in one of those subtle shifts of momentum mentioned earlier, Nadal held easily just before rain ended play for the day. This one game, even though Djokovic still was up a break and 2-1 in the set, re-set the match for Nadal. While still angry that play wasn't halted for good earlier Nadal stormed off the court on a positive note with that one solid service game.
And sure enough, when play resumed early afternoon in front of a less-than-capacity Monday lunchtime crowd (the French officials should have been better off allowing fans in for free to fill up Roland Garros) Nadal came out firing, just as he did when he started the final.
Clobbering forehands to all corners of the court and moving Djokovic side-to-side, Nadal rediscovered the form that was on display for the entire fortnight, looking utterly unbeatable. Additionally, Nadal's serve was superb as he didn't face a break point in the final set, in fact he was only taken to 30 once on his serve.
If one can judge the meaning and import of a victory by the degree of emotional outpouring afterward, then Monday's triumph by Nadal surely ranks up there with his storied win over Federer at the 2008 Wimbledon, the match widely considered to be the finest ever contested.
After Nadal fell to the ground - much in the manner of Bjorn Borg, the man whose record of six French titles Nadal bested - he raced to the stands to embrace his beloved family and friends. When he boyishly leaped into the arms of his coach and uncle Toni, it was clear how much this meant to Nadal.
Though Nadal had temporarily regained traction against Djokovic in their thrilling rivalry when he beat the Serb twice this spring in clay court finals, it would have meant next to nothing had he not been able to win on this day.
But now, looking forward, it is obvious that Nadal is again on equal, if not better, footing with Djokovic and that translates to enticing scenarios to come the rest of the summer at Wimbledon, the Olympics and the U.S. Open. Is it possible that Nadal and Djokovic can extend their record and meet in five – or six – consecutive Slam finals before the year is out? Will the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry surpass Nadal’s rivalry with Federer, a thought no one would have entertained a year or two ago?
I’ve written and said this many times but it merits frequent repetition – this is a golden era in the sport that is likely never to be seen again for generations.