PARIS — Rafael Nadal goes through a couple of little tics behind the baseline, frowns as he bounces the ball several times up and down, points, a ball in his right hand touching the strings of his racquet, toward the service box on the opposite side of the court, arches back while releasing the ball upward, upward to the overcast sky, his eye fixed on it, brings his force down, left shoulder coming down on the arm following through, with a popping sound that is heard outside the packed, 15,000-seat Chatrier stadium where, truth be told, you could hear a pin drop at this moment, and a split second later there is a second crack as Novak Djokovic whips the ball back as he leans into a backhand that sounds like a rifle shot.
And looks like one — which is to say the untrained eye does not see it, any more than it saw the service shot that Nadal delivered a split second before. But Nadal not only sees it, he knows exactly where to meet it, and he is in position already to return the return where his opponent least wants it, into the corner on his right side.
It appears almost Calvinistically determined that the man who has owned the gentlemen’s championship, played on the red clay of Roland Garros, for the past seven years (winning all but one), is bound to win once again in this 2012 edition of a tournament, officially the Internationaux de France, that has been played here since 1928. Nadal controls the points. That is like a pitcher who can determine where the batter will send the ball, if he makes contact with it over the plate. He controls the pace at which rallies take place, determines whether to make them long or short, attacks at the net at will. He is doing this against the world No. 1, whose goal is to win and thereby achieve a consecutive Grand Slam: possession of the trophies of all four major tennis tournaments, called slams, at the same time. That is a step ahead of a career Grand Slam, winning all of them but not consecutively (which Nadal already has done), and a step behind a single-year Grand Slam, winning them all in the same calendar year. Which, you can look it up, has only been done twice in the history of this sport, by Don Budge in 1938 and Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969. Most tennis historians think Laver could have won more had he not turned pro in ’63 or had the Open Era begun prior to ’69. But the cookies crumble, as the Chinese tell us, and there is naught we can do about them, except — arguably — get “tough” in our trade policy with China. Some people say there are too many of them, the Chinese I mean. But I say phooey, because look at how many Poles there are? And have they not given us Chopin? And Joseph Conrad (in English, to boot). And what have the Chinese given us? Na Li?
Where grand slams go, career or consecutive or what-not, it does not look like the mighty mountain man is going to make it, and he will have to start his quest over. By contrast, with a victory on this 10th of June, Nadal will win his seventh French championship, surpassing the record he shares with the legendary and methodical Swede, Bjorn Borg, who last won here in 1981, when he defeated the magnificently inventive Czech Ivan Lendl in a five-set thriller. (Lendl finally got his due in ’84 in an even more thrilling classic, against John McEnroe — despite being two sets in the hole — and went on to win two more. Americans never have been much good here, making Chang, Courier, and Agassi all the more remarkable in (fairly) recent years.)
The crowd roars as the mighty man of Majorca hits another winner down the line by setting up a weak Djokovic return that he can kill with one of his inside-out forehand bullets. The score is now two sets to zero and, barring a reversal of what Mr. Bush used to call the big mo, it looks good for Spain on this day of rain. (Sorry, guys, but I myself had my morning tennis — a rather good game I picked up with a trio who needed a fourth, my lucky day, as I walked by the public courts wearing sneaks and carrying an old Maxply I found in the closet, I am an optimist, in my neighborhood early in the morning — interrupted by a serious drizzle, and Mr. Pleszczynski is far away in Arlington, Virginia, so I could not call him as say, yo, whats a little rain?)
On the other hand, that is just what you cannot bank on (not that you would want to bank in Spain anyway, these days): for Novak Djokovic, who is quite remarkable among Open Era No. 1-ranked male players in that is game is founded on defense, has a habit of doing just that, reversing the mo. He did it in a bitter match (for his opponent) in the quarters, going from 1-2 to 3-2 against France’s great hope, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, whose wonderful athleticism, fully on display in those middle sets, just could not last against the resilient Serb. And this was, incredibly enough, after coming back from 0-2 against a fine Italian player, Andreas Seppi, in the previous round. No, you can say what you want about Novak Djokovic — I, personally, would say only that he is a fantastic tennis player and one of the Leading Competitors of Our Time — you cannot say he ever says die. He never says die. He is like a Marine. He is like a Foreign Legionnaire. He never, ever, quits. As Nadal soon enough will find out.
Not that he does not know. At Melbourne a few months ago, Nole got his 2012 campaign going by taking a classic that, to the very last, the smart money boys were giving to Rafa. It lasted six hours, the longest in Australian history. Australians are terrific people, and Samantha Stosur the other day — but never mind, what happened in January is that Rafa had it in his grasp and then Nole snatched it back.
So he is prepared. And yet, in the third set here, after going up 2-0, it happened again. Nole came back swinging. It was absolutely crazy amazing. He had him — I mean, Rafa had him — but no, he would not give up, and before you know it, he had Rafa. Simple as that. He got the mo.
He got the rain. On a lousy, rotten, overcast, frigid day — 18 degrees C. up in the bleachers, and a good thing I am fit as Mitt Romney, maybe more fit — Rafa began to slip. And slide. And before you knew it, Nole was up 5-2 and the next thing you knew, he had the set and the mo. The Big Mo. And no joke: this is the first time in two weeks of the French Open that Rafael Nadal has lost a set.
Federer lost some sets — including three to Djokovic just a couple days earlier, which was it for the Swiss Master. Djokovic lost some sets — including the two apiece against Seppi and Tsonga where it appeared he should be on his way to London to begin practicing on the grass courts for Queens and Wimbledon. But Nadal never lost a set. Rafa Nadal does not lose on clay (unless it is blue). Get that: untouchable.
The French Open folks — officially, the Federation Francaise de Tennis — were pleased that things were going well. Plenty fans. Good coverage (including in the American media, thanks to Mr. Pleszczynski and Mr. Tyrrell, despite they are concerned about the Future of the Republic, which shows they have Generosity, to put aside some time for French tennis, and would the French do the same? I ask. But anyway: was it a good tournament, so far? Well, yes and no. There were plenty of good matches. Drama, excitement — some unexpected upstarts, like the lovely and feisty little ball of fire, Sara Errani, and of course the charming French giant killer, Virgine Razzano, who defeated the greatest in her class, Miss Serena Williams, in a thriller of thrillers (and then immediately flamed out before Arantxa Rus, who is from Holland), and there were some good juniors, and not to forget the one half of the gentlemen’s doubles champion, Daniel Nestor, who beat the mighty Bryan Brothers — last Americans standing on the penultimate day — though not without some help from his partner, Max “the Beast” Mirnyi, you have to admit it is pretty bad when our best cannot beat a team made up of a 39-year old Canadian and a Bulgarian wild man who has exactly one shot, which is wham and bam and down the middle (admittedly he is also a terror, albeit unpredictable, at the net), but that is the state of U.S. tennis and I shudder to think of what our diplomacy is like in this dangerous world, though fortunately we have the Russians to help us out.
Yes, the Russians. We have the Russians. Because here is the headline everyone missed yesterday: FLORIDA GIRL WINS FRENCH OPEN
Okay, so she is Russian. She is a Russian national. But does she live in Moscow? Does she live in her native Siberia? No. She may be the Ice Queen, but Miss Maria Sharapova, age 25, the greatest and prettiest and longest-legged tennis player in the world — and not only by contrast with the much shorter but lovely and well proportioned Sara Errani, whom she destroyed like a steamroller, it must be said out of journalist integrity — lives in Florida. And there is a reason. Florida is not necessarily “better” than Siberia, but it is a damn sight more good. Got that? So. Anyway, it was a great match, and Maria, though dominant from the start, had a fight on her hand because Sara is a fighter and it was a fine and honorable match. But boy was she happy after, falling on her knees, thanking her mom and dad, oh it was touching. I love it when Russian immigrants to America are successful. It shows that Tocqueville was right, there would be two great powers as the Old World declined and senesced — he meant France and England, basically — and of the two, the one with the constitution of liberty had an incomparable advantage — not geographic, not natural resources, not nothing but moral and political and spiritual.
Meanwhile, Rafa demolished Nole. But then — the rain came. It started raining. And there was no way, they had to halt the match. And when it started up again an hour later, Rafa’s mo was gone. And Nole, who had been hitting insecure shots into the net all afternoon, began to go on one of his tears — nothing failed, everything worked. Observe, however, that Rafa was hitting like an angel too. He was hitting everything. He was hitting aces, too, which Nole could not do. But, there you have it, Rafa was also hitting what the stats boys call “unforced errors.” That is when you get to the damn ball, but you do not get it back over the net. Or you hit it out of bounds. Why this should be “unforced” always escapes me. It was, obviously, hit in such a way to make you miss. Granted, it may have been “easy.” So what? It was still the one shot you were not able to hit back, and why not give the man credit who put it there? At any rate, Rafa was hitting balls, admittedly, that normal Rafa-observers consensually agreed he could put away. He could handle them. He could whack them. And he was whacking them all right — all over the place, especially out of bounds.
What happened next? Your guess is as good as mine. It started raining again, and this time, what with falling daylight and the 18 degrees C., they decided to call it a day. You can look it up tomorrow, somewhere under the Heat-Celtics in the NBA and Italy-Spain in the Euro. Me personally, I am not saying. They are both fantastic athletes, and I hope the better man wins, better man for the day that is, because in life, they are both okay. As Nole put it,
“You know, ones you win, ones you lose, but the more important thing is to try to take the best out of these matches and enjoy them, you know, because as a tennis player, this is what you live for.”
Not at all bad, for a young man whose first language is not English, to render the idea that it is not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game…
And I think, too, of Nadal’s generosity, as when he addressed his fans: “Well,” he said, “unfortunately I have never traveled to Ecuador, but I hope that one day I’ll visit the country. So all the best to Ecuador and all of my fans. And thank you very much.”
My thinking exactly. And for the final score at the legendary French Open, the Internationaux de France in the blessed and beloved west end near the Porte d’Auteuil, you can look it up.