When the men’s singles draw for Roland Garros 2015 was created, the match that drew the most anticipation was a projected quarterfinal clash between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. Djokovic is the world #1 playing at the top of his game. If he made it to the quarters he would be on a 26 match win streak. He has already won the Australian Open, Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo and Rome this season. Nadal, quite simply, is the King of Clay. That he was not only the defending Roland Garros champion but winner of 9 of the last 10 Roland Garros championships put the exclamation point on that claim. Despite losing a handful of matches during this year’s clay court season most believed in the magic of Nadal at Roland Garros. But on this day, it would be Novak who made Rafa’s near-invincibility disappear.
Nole dominated Rafa in nearly every way imaginable. Total winners (45 to 16). Forehand winners, usually Rafa’s strength (20 to 3 advantage for Djokovic). Net points won (25 to 11). Even the net cord balls seemed to trickle over for Nole. Most surprisingly, after Djokovic went up two sets to none, one would have expected Nadal to dig in, go for broke and throw the kitchen sink at Nole. Instead, it seemed as though Rafa checked out mentally. Djokovic took advantage, cruising to victory in the third set, handing Rafa a lopsided straight sets loss, 7-5 6-3 6-1. Maybe his game doesn’t have the ferocity of Rafael Nadal or the élan of Roger Federer, but Djokovic does possess the best return of serve possibly ever along with impeccable defense and every shot in the book. He’s vastly improved his serve from his early days and is far stronger in adverse situations and conditions. His considerable strengths were on full display as Nole kept Nadal from mounting any comeback save for a brief 4 game stretch in the first set after Djokovic had opened 4-0. From 5-5 in the first set, Nole won 13 of the last 17 games, including 9 of the last 10. The only word of caution I would have concerning Djokovic is not to think he’s already won the title here. He hasn’t. This was just the quarterfinals. Awaiting Nole in the semis is Andy Murray, who himself is undefeated in the clay court season. Murray is fully capable of ending the party for Djokovic…especially if Nole is already practicing his champion’s speech.
Rafa had lost only one match at Roland Garros prior to this match. It was to Robin Soderling in 2009. That loss always felt like an aberration. Today’s loss seemed to mean more. At 29 and often injured, it’s fair to wonder where his odometer is. With Nadal’s physical style of play, there are only so many miles he can put on his body before Father Time comes knocking. 29 for Rafa is different than 33 for Roger Federer. And with Novak Djokovic at the peak of his powers and in his physical prime, this feels more like a passing of the torch. If it is…if there are no more Roland Garros titles in Rafa’s future…then I must bow to his great accomplishment. 9 singles titles at one Major is legendary, right up there with Martina Navratilova’s 9 singles titles at Wimbledon. Like all things, these title runs must end. But as the Vision said in Age of Ultron, “a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts.” If this is end of Rafa’s run…and it might not be, so this could be premature…but if it is..then appreciate the beauty of what Rafa accomplished for so many years and all the great moments and memories he gave tennis fans around the world.
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1 NOVAK DJOKOVIC (won 7-5 6-3 6-1 vs 6 Rafael Nadal)