The king of clay is dead….long live the king!

It is appropriate to write this on Sunday, the day of the men’s final at Roland Garros.  The first final since 2009 not to feature a seemingly permanent fixture of it:  Rafael Nadal.  Then, it seemed to be a one-off injury-driven slump (he missed Wimbledon that year).  This time, it brought an end to an unsuccessful, faltering comeback trail.   It would be presumptuous of me to attempt to see the future and declare that Nadal will win no further French Opens.  But the manner of his defeat to long time thorn-in-the-flesh Novak Djokovic certainly seems to mark the end of an era.  The end of Nadal’s hegemony over the red clay of Paris.

The signs were ominous from the get go.  Nadal actually failed to win a single tournament in the European clay court season, running up to the French Open.  Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid and Rome – he tried and tried and turned a blank.  What’s more, he wasn’t just losing to Djokovic but to Andy Murray, Stanislas Wawrinka and, finally, Fabio Fognini.  He only made one final in all these tournaments where he lost to Murray.  Even more worrisome from a Nadal fan point of view was that in his fourth round match at French Open, he dropped a set against Jack Sock.  Reading that again will bring home the full import.  Nadal dropped a set against Sock, who played mostly horrid tennis in the first two sets.  Of course, seeing is believing so nobody was prepared to believe this was the end until it did pan out.

Djokovic was to show no mercy, though.  It should be clear by now that Paris hates the hell out of Djokovic (how often outside SW19 do you see a roaring crowd getting right behind Murray?) and they watched in funereal silence as he buried the King of Clay in a straight set demolition.  At first with some difficulty, as perhaps even he couldn’t believe what was unfolding.  Later, with embarrassing ease as Nadal uncharacteristically threw in the towel and could hardly be bothered to put up a fight.  Seven years back, when he had dethroned Federer at Wimbledon, the latter had mounted a strong fightback and pushed him all the way in a modern day tennis epic.  It was a classic clash of titans and Nadal had to earn the sobriquet of King of Grass from Federer (who still has five more slams at the venue than him, by the by); it didn’t come easy.  By contrast,the third set became a mere formality as Nadal was far too consumed by the demons in his head to think about Djokovic.

After all, what could he do if his once reliable forehand shanked even more embarrassingly than Federer in 2013? Or that he only managed to produce short, weak shots when he did get the forehand into play?  On every front, Nadal was utterly bereft of confidence and to make it worse, he was no longer able to run down one ball more the way he used to in his prime.   This was not the way the changing of hands was supposed to pan out.  But in resisting the moment when it had arrived three years earlier in 2012, Nadal also set himself up for a more painful meltdown in his fiefdom.  No, I am not saying Nadal should in fact have lost in 2012 and that would have helped his cause.  Just that that is how the script unfolds in sport.  By 2015, Nadal was simply too much of a shadow of the player he once was to ward off Djokovic’s challenge.

Instead, Murray in the semi final mounted a much more credible challenge to Djokovic’s bid to complete the career slam.  He too eventually faded away in the fifth set but had the match been completed on Friday as per schedule, there’s no saying what the outcome would have been.  On resumption on Saturday, Murray did well to deny any advantage to Djokovic from the loss of momentum to take the fourth set but the wily Serb fed him deep, heavy balls to slow him down and provoke errors from his otherwise massive forehand.

Fittingly, Wawrinka, the man who has lately bothered Djokovic more than anybody else on the tour will play him for the title today.  Wawrinka, save his graceful one handed backhand, is an outright ball bashing machine.  If he gets going, Djokovic will be scrambling to get balls back into play rather than controlling rallies.  But Djokovic still has ultimately had the measure of Wawrinka 2-1 at the Aussie Open and the odds would have to favour him rather than the Swiss who is only playing his second Slam final.   It is however expected to be another humdinger.

The jaded English media lamented that the premature arrival of the much awaited Djoko-Nadal clash would unofficially bring down curtains on this year’s French Open because it would lack a big match to interest viewers thereafter.  Going by the reactions of the Paris crowd when Murray took the fight to Djokovic in the third set, that has hardly been the case.  The tournament reached its best moment thus far in the semi finals and one would hope for a great final as the proverbial icing on the cake.

Perhaps, given the similarly one sided thrashing Wawrinka handed out to Federer, it makes sense that that should be the case.  The media still cannot think beyond Federer and Nadal but tennis is moving on now.  It has moved past Federer for some time notwithstanding last year’s amazing Wimbledon final and RG 2015 may mark the moment it moved past Nadal too.  Murray and Wawrinka are Djokovic’s toughest opponents now.  Not to fear, men’s tennis, as always, continues to be in great hands and the ascension to the throne would not have been easy for Djokovic should he clinch it today.  The king is dead, long live the king!

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