“In agreement with the public authorities, the match will be able to go to an end with the spectators, it is a tolerance granted given the completely exceptional nature of the circumstances”.
The crowd roared at Court Philippe Chatrier as the announcement was made. With emotions running high at the end of the third set that will be talked about for ages, it was confirmed that the 5,000 spectators watching the main event were allowed to watch the conclusion of the match with not long to go for the 11 pm Covid-19 curfew that has been in place at the French Open.
As the commentator on the official broadcast said a few minutes earlier, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, two of the all-time greats of the game, had just completed one of the all-time great sets of tennis. The match itself will be remembered for a long time, what with Nadal losing a semifinal for the first time ever at Roland Garros. Djokovic became the first man to defeat Nadal twice at the French Open, over the course of 108 matches and he entered the final after a 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2 win in a match that lasted four hours and 11 minutes.
We could, of course, spend hours analysing the match in its entirety. But, let’s instead just focus on the 93 minutes of tennis that transpired between the two players facing each other for a mind-boggling 58th time.
It began at around 1230 am in India, already past Friday midnight, just when Euro 2020 kicked off with a match between Italy and Turkey in Rome, that famous old city. However, the scene of the gladiatorial battle for the next 90-plus minutes would be Paris. A set of tennis that lasted almost as much as an entire football match. And were we not entertained by a Spaniard (fittingly) and a Serb.
French Open 2021 men's SF, third set
|Game 1||Nadal holds||1-0||3 mins 17 secs|
|Game 2||Djokovic holds||1-1||2 mins 39 secs|
|Game 3||Nadal holds||2-1||16 mins 26 secs|
|Game 4||Djokovic holds||2-2||1 mins 59 secs|
|Game 5||Djokovic breaks||2-3||4 mins 57 secs|
|Game 6||Nadal breaks||3-3||6 mins 8 secs|
|Game 7||Djokovic breaks||3-4||1 mins 55 secs|
|Game 8||Djokovic holds||3-5||6 mins 42 secs|
|Game 9||Nadal holds||4-5||2 mins 25 secs|
|Game 10||Nadal breaks||5-5||4 mins 4 secs|
|Game 11||Nadal holds||6-5||5 mins 48 secs|
|Game 12||Djokovic holds||6-6||6 mins 33 secs|
|Tiebreaker||Djokovic wins||6-7||7 mins 32 secs|
Nadal held serve to begin the set, nailing a forehand down the line. Djokovic followed it up with a hold to 15 of his own, with an ace to finish the game off.
Then came a marathon third game, that witnessed two breathtaking 12-shot rallies, a 13-shot rally and an 11-shot rally during which Nadal saved two break points to hold. A casual forehand winner from the net sealed the deal for him. Djokovic’s love-hold in the fourth game was an anomaly. More break points came and went for the Serb in the fifth game, but he converted one finally to edge ahead.
Momentum on his side? Think again.
Within the whole masterpiece of a set, the sixth game was a miniature piece of art worth preserving in tennis museums. Djokovic hit a forehand winner to a Nadal drop shot, after great coverage from the baseline. Then, Nadal hit a backhand return winner that would have made Djokovic, the king of returns, feel proud. The net chord wanted in on the action too, helping Nadal convert a turnaround backhand into a winner. He put his hand up, but that deserved to be a winner.
Then came arguably the point of the match as Djokovic and Nadal engaged in a rally of 23 shots where, in any other circumstance, around 20 would have been winners on their own. But not when these two are competing. Ridiculous angles, sensational defence, and just another addition to the highlight reel of Djokovic saving big points in his career. But Nadal is the king here, for a reason. A reflex forehand winner down the line, and he broke right back.
The next two games went to Djokovic and serving at 5-4, he nearly had the set in his bag. But Nadal hit a down-the-line winner each on his forehand and backhand. Back on level terms.
And at 5-5, another marathon game. Nadal saved a break point with a nerveless overhead smash and Djokovic conducted the crowd when he forced another break point with a rally that defied rules of geometry. Nadal returned the favour to save a break point and held serve with an ace. He roared in delight, Djokovic roared in frustration. And at that moment, the tennis peaked on the night.
Out of nowhere, akin to pulling a rabbit out of the hat, Djokovic came up with a backhand drop shot when Nadal had a break point to take the set 7-5. A massive moment in the match, a massive risk, and as it proved to be, a massive reward as the top seed forced a tiebreak.
Both players made errors at crucial moments in the game but to call them unforced is doing a disservice to the other. And so we witnessed on Nadal’s serve at 3-4 in the tiebreaker. In the stats book, it will go down as another forehand error from the 13-time champion as he missed a volley he would usually nail in his sleep. But that the rally even got to that point was due to Djokovic’s incredible defensive skills.
And so, after 93 mins, Djokovic put his right index finger next to his ear, listening to the crowd roar.
Those who cover the game for a living — in written words or spoken — were left to just uttering words like incredible, unbelievable, stunning... and the frequent expression of awe with varying usage frequency of w’s: a “wowww” here, and a “wwwowwwwww” there. The “!” was used with generosity on social media and chat groups. You couldn’t possibly find the perfect words to describe the level that was witnessed during those 93 minutes while living those moments. It had to sink in.
Then, of course, there are the peers and former greats who could not help but be captivated. Men and women who have played at the highest level, watching on in admiration.
“You cannot play better clay court tennis than this, it’s perfect,” tweeted Andy Murray, commenting later what a shame it would be for fans to leave at some point. (Didn’t happen, of course). Another Andy — a certain Roddick, who knows a thing or two about marathon matches — said, “it’s one of the best matches I’ve ever seen.” Viktoria Azarenka called the level of tennis “insane.” “Is there any tennis player out there NOT watching this match,” asked Kristen Flipkens.
Best of all, Diego Schwartzman, the man who took a set from Nadal not too long back, wondered at the end of that set, “Do we tennis players play the same sport as the two of them?”
Years, even decades down the line, we will remember that night in Paris when Djokovic and Nadal made the authorities relax the curfew during a pandemic to allow a few thousand lucky fans to stay back till the end. Read that again. For a match that lived up to the ridiculously high expectations and then some, it was fitting.