The greatest clay court player of all time, Rafael Nadal, proved for the ninth time in his career that beating him in Paris, a best of five match in the French Open, is an almost impossible feat, even if he is far from his best and the player standing on the other side, Novak Djokovic, is actually better.
Nadal lost the first set and came crashing back. He doesn’t switch modes. He simply kicks into a certain gear and doesn’t relent. On other courts, it takes more than just bashing the ball from the back line to win matches. But on clay? Nadal gets to every ball and throws it right back at you. Djokovic couldn’t stop making mistakes, and slowly felt the match slipping away from him, without a hope of actually bouncing back.
This hasn’t been the best of seasons for Nadal, looking quite vulnerable against Djokovic on clay during Masters tournaments. However, it’s one thing to beat Nadal when you can win one set and feel like you’re almost there, and it’s a completely different thing to win one set against Nadal and know that it’s going to take a very long time before that match is actually over. It sounds simple and basic, but the difference in how it affects a player’s mind is huge.
So Nadal has no reached 14 Grand Slam titles. Only four away from becoming the all-time leader, pending Roger Federer continuing to show that skill can’t overcome the limitations age, fitness and health put in front of you. Nadal isn’t exactly the healthiest player in the world and usually a huge effort from him at the Roland Garros, which he needed this time despite the strong finish, makes his success at Wimbledon very doubtful.
As long as Nadal is below Federer when it comes to career Slam titles, he loses in the only objective measure of all-time greatness. It doesn’t matter that there are other parameters which we think matter more that he loses in. However, with a 66-1 career record on the red clay of Paris, there seems to be a very likely scenario of Nadal continuing his decline as an overall player because of bad knees and a lessened ability of making shots, while still being the most dominant force the moment the French Open kicks off.
Djokovic keeps missing out on the title that eludes him. His shot making and ability to rise from the dead seems to disappear on clay when facing Nadal, when it’s a best of five. Djokovic gave up too soon on coming back, letting the relentless style of Nadal grind him to a pulp, looking like a lesser man and player once the lesson of clay court tennis was over. He entered the tournament as the best player in the world, but sometimes these kind of losses change that distinction as well.