Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will have to endure one more sleepless night and contemplate missed opportunities, slow starts and bad luck after the French Open final was suspended because of rain on Sunday. The match, which Nadal leads 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 1-2, is scheduled to resume Monday at 1 p.m. Paris time (7 a.m. ET), though rain is in the forecast again.
While Nadal and his team grew frustrated that play restarted under a light drizzle after an initial 34-minute rain delay when he was leading 5-3 in the second set, the second and final stoppage could not have come sooner. The Spaniard was able to close out the second set when play resumed and build a 2-0 lead in the third set, getting him four games from hoisting the Coupe des Mousquetaires for a record-setting seventh time. Then the rain put an immediate damper on his plans. From 6-4, 6-3, 2-0 up, Nadal went on to do something he’s never done at Roland Garros before: lose eight straight games.
With light rain continuing to fall through the third set, Nadal complained that the moisture made the balls too soggy for him to get his typical level of topspin action. His shots dropping shorter, combined with Djokovic’s desperate mentality, meant that all of a sudden the Serb was the one dictating play. Things unraveled quickly for Nadal, who went on to lose the third set 6-2 and fall a break down in the fourth, before finally holding his serve when play was called. It was an odd turn of events to cap what was already a peculiar and, at times, uncomfortable match.
We’ve come to expect so much when these two men play each other. Theirs is a matchup that is built for long, grinding matches, ridiculous shot-making and breathtaking rallies. Look no further than the 44-shot rally to start the fourth set that would have left any other player heaving on the ground.
But for most of this match, Djokovic seemed to be running under a restrictor plate, never in full flight, never able to play with the conviction that allowed him to go 7-0 against Nadal in 2011. Was the pressure of having to go through Nadal to become the first man in 43 years to win four consecutive majors finally getting to him? He looked like a man saddled with the expectation of an impossible task, and though he was able to make headway in fits and bursts — he rallied from a break down in the first set and from 0-3 down in the second — he would inevitably sink back into nervy mistakes, like double-faulting on game point twice in the match. While he became the first player in the tournament this year to break Nadal’s serve more than once (in fact, he broke him seven times), he was broken seven times himself. And when Djokovic dropped a game in the second set with a series of unforced errors, he hung his head and proceeded to bash his racket against the players’ bench, causing wood to go flying everywhere. But, hey, at least that got us talking about Perrier, right? Sponsors love that.
Not surprisingly, the suspension of play didn’t seem to bother Djokovic one bit. Despite his eight-game surge, perhaps he welcomed the pause to revisit tactics and get his head straight. The Nadal camp was less than pleased, though, with the entire chain of events. Nadal made it point to show the umpire how wet the balls had become and he expressed his displeasure to tournament referee Stefan Fransson, saying the conditions were the same when they were forced to resume play after the first rain delay as they were now that play had been stopped. Cameras caught Toni Nadal, Rafa’s uncle and coach, cursing the situation as he walked by Fransson in the hallways. Fransson responded by saying the players never complained about the conditions when play resumed late in the second set and no one grumbled throughout the third set.
And so for the third straight Grand Slam tournament the victor will be decided on a Monday (the Australian Open ended after midnight). Nadal will have to contemplate the fact that he was four games away from the title, while Djokovic has to feel pretty good knowing he’s up a break in the fourth set. We’ll see how Djokovic handles his new lease on life. He knows he has the proven ability to take two sets off Nadal on clay on any given day. If he is able to complete the rally from being down two sets to love to beat a man who has lost only once in eight years at Roland Garros, that would be one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the sport. And a controversial one to boot.