Signature Achievement of the Year (ATP): Rafael Nadal
Unlike the articles preceding them, the pair on signature achievements focus on a single component of a player’s 2012 campaign rather than examining it comprehensively.
Cementing his status as the greatest clay player in tennis history, Rafael Nadal earned a record-breaking seventh Roland Garros title in the most satisfying manner possible by defeating his nemesis of the previous twelve months.
When the clay season began this year, Nadal stood in a peculiar position. In a remarkable feat of consistency, he had reached the final at four consecutive majors, but he had lost the last three to the same man. Those results defined his niche in the ATP hierarchy, situated clearly above those below him at the tournaments that mattered while thoroughly suffocated by the only player ranked above him. Nor could Nadal know whether he had gained ground in a rivalry tilted decisively against him at that stage without facing that player again, and risking a further blow to his self-esteem. He appeared to find encouragement from the nail-biting final at the Australian Open, when he came within just a handful of service points from conquering his tormentor. On the other hand, he had played probably the best hard-court match of his career, including a comeback from the brink of defeat in the fourth set, and yet still fallen short after he had claimed a fifth-set lead.
More than ever before, then, Nadal needed to protect his clay kingdom in Paris from the inexorably encroaching Serb, or his subservience would become total. To the astonishment of the tennis world, he had conceded large chunks of his beloved terre battue to his rival the previous year with losses in finals at Madrid and Rome. Federer had averted a clash between the top two men with a spectacular semifinal effort that appeared instrumental in retrospect to Nadal’s sixth Roland Garros crown, and the world #1 bore little resemblance to the player whom Rafa had defeated in Paris before. Fortunately for the Spaniard, and perhaps critically, he could build some momentum upon a title defense in Monte Carlo and the reconquest of Rome at the expense of his nemesis. But neither of those triumphs felt conclusive evidence of his ability to halt his futility against him at majors. Personal issues clearly hampered the Serb on the first occasion, while the second hinged on a few pivotal points that Nadal won late in the first set and might have produced a different outcome all too smoothly otherwise.
Through the first six rounds of Roland Garros, the defending champion encountered no challenger able to test his prodigious skills on clay. Compatriots Almagro and Ferrer, although adept on the surface, simply lacked the mental tenacity or will to overcome the man whom they have grown accustomed to viewing as superior. Atop the draw loomed the only figure not accustomed to such a perspective, and Rafa fans exhaled for a moment when he wavered against Seppi and then Tsonga. Not to be denied too easily in his quest for the only major that eluded him, the Serb rebounded from those mid-tournament totters to comfortably defeat Federer in straight sets, revenge for his setback the previous year. On the last day of Roland Garros came the climactic battle that Nadal must have desired and dreaded on different levels: a fourth consecutive major final against Novak Djokovic.
In the initial stages, the final unfolded in a far less intriguing manner than most had anticipated. Showing only a few traces of nerves, Nadal opened with poise in each of the first two sets and served more effectively than he had in the three previous finals against Djokovic, whose return had mauled him with impunity. A routine victory soon edged within range when the defending champion broke his rival’s serve to start the third set, for all of the positive energy rested squarely in his corner. Most dangerous when most in danger, however, Djokovic chose that moment to unleash the bold, liberated tennis of a competitor who relishes the role of an underdog. As the sky grew ever gloomier, so did the mood of Nadal’s fans amidst a sequence of eight consecutive games reeled off by the Serb, the first player ever to compile such a streak on clay against the Spaniard. Racing through the third set and establishing an early lead in the fourth, Djokovic had wrested away all of the momentum and launched what looked like the latest of his implausible comebacks. Nadal finally clung to his serve in the last game before darkness fell on a night full of anxiety for his fans. If he had lost this match from such a commanding position, his spirits might have suffered a blow heavier than any before in a career filled with stunning successes but also with bitter adversity.
When the sun returned the next afternoon, though, Nadal managed to regain his equilibrium both in his mind and the match by breaking Djokovic almost immediately and then holding serve to the brink of a tiebreak. Through the rest of that tense fourth set, he gradually wore down his rival with the long, punishing exchanges and heavy topspin groundstrokes that had proved so lethal on this surface. Subjected to greater pressure than Nadal in his service games, Djokovic finally cracked in the last game before the tiebreak with a pair of unforced errors and a double fault on championship point. The highly anticipated encounter had ended in anticlimax after all from the perspective of an ordinary sports fan—but not from the perspective of Nadal, who fell to his knees on the Paris clay for the seventh time. His face contorted with a complex spectrum of emotions, he celebrated the historic accomplishment of becoming the first man to secure seven titles at Roland Garros, the fruit of perhaps his most meaningful victory since Wimbledon 2008. Whereas that match had announced Nadal’s arrival as a champion on all surfaces, this match announced that his unprecedented mastery of clay would survive the sternest challenge of his career.
Number to note:
8: Nadal’s total appearances at Roland Garros. The staggering success rate of seven titles in eight attempts (overall record: 52-1) captures the extent to which he has dominated this tournament more than any man has dominated any major in the Open era.
Signature Achievement of the Year (WTA)