(This column was first published on Scroll, Monday June 6)
There is something about the French.
The unforgiving clay of Court Phillipe Chatrier has broken hearts and melted minds, revealed invisible weaknesses and brutally exposed carefully-hidden fragilities. It is the kryptonite of tennis, denuding demigods of their strength.
“It was the worst loss of my life, a devastating defeat: sometimes it still keeps me up nights.”
John McEnroe, not given to admitting fallibility, wrote that in his autobiography Serious, some 18 years after his loss, in his only final appearance at Stade Roland Garros, to the then Grand Slam virgin Ivan Lendl.
“It’s even tough for me to do commentary at the French,” McEnroe wrote. He had stormed into that final in the midst of a dream year, flattening Jimmy Connors for his 42nd straight win on the bounce. And yet.
“I’ll often have one or two days where I literally feel sick to my stomach at being there and thinking about that match,” he wrote. “Thinking of what I threw away, and how different my life would’ve been if I’d won.”
How different could it have been? He had already terminated the career of the legendary Bjorn Borg; he would end his career with a male professional record of 155 ATP titles including seven Slams. So what was one Open title more or less?
But that’s the thing – we define champions by their successes; they define themselves by their failures, by the peaks they have left unscaled.
The best ever team to wear the green and gold of the Seleção, at least in contemporary memory, was the Socrates-led outfit of the early 1980s. Yet it is their defeat at the hands of Italy in a Group C game of the 1982 World Cup that haunts the surviving players and indeed the nation, like an unwelcome ghost at the jogo bonito banquet. Shane Warne is the best leg-spinner the world has ever seen and arguably the most storied bowler of all time, and yet it is his monstering by Sachin Tendulkar in 1998 that stalked his nightmares.
In prefatory notes that lead a collection of his best work, famed sportswriter Gary Smith talks of how sport comes to us fans in neat boxes bounded by the perimeters of TV screens and the boundaries of fields and courts. And yet, says Smith, the most compelling stories are the ones that occur beyond the game – “before it, after it, above it or under it, deep in the furnace of the (sportsman’s) psyche.”
If any single event incarnates that sporting furnace of the psyche it is the French – the tennis equivalent of the Nordwand, the north face of the Eiger in the Swiss Alps that is more usually referred to as Mordwand, the Murder Wall. As with the Eiger, so with Roland-Garros – it is the unique challenges, the unparalleled difficulties, that weaken the flesh, mess with the minds, and destroy the spirit of the proudest. Champions like Jimmy Connors, who believed the French suited him more than any other surface and yet could not make it beyond the semis on four tries. Or Becker, who thought clay was antithetical to his naturally aggressive style but gave it his best shot anyway only to fall in the semis, thrice. Stefan Edberg, who got one shot at a title he badly wanted to win – only to give the metronomic Michael Chang his first and only Grand Slam title.
“Our dream was gone,” peerless Pete Sampras said after his 1996 semi-final defeat by Yevgeny Kafelnikov. “It was gone for good.” He could have been speaking for all of them, the phonebook-sized list of greats who never managed to conquer France.
In a world that increasingly looks to hermetically seal sports away from the elements so nothing can interfere with giving the sponsors their money’s worth, the French remains obstinately open in more than name. The naturally slow, high-bouncing surface adds layers of difficulty when it rains and the ball ‘sticks’, playing havoc with timing, or when it bakes in the sun and loses its moisture and gets flaky and skiddy, coating racquet, ball, players and all with what looks like the dried blood of the many dreams that haemorrhaged there.
Perhaps that is why the anomalies deserve altars erected in their honour, perfumed with the incense of adulation. Johann Cryuff, who played like a dervish and who spoke in tongues, once said “The game always begins afterwards”. Get it? No? Novak Djokovic did.
Having won the 2011 Wimbledon and US Open and the 2012 Australian Open, he lost in the French – to Rafael Nadal. 2013 Wimbledon, 2013 US Open, check; 2013 French, Nadal again. 2014 French – oops, déjà vu all over again. 2015 Australian, a fifth straight title; 2015 French, glory be, no Nadal across the net – but there was Stan Wawrinka of the devastating single-handed backhand waiting to trip him up.
On that evening of June 7, 2015, Nole held back his tears as he held up the losing finalist’s plate. And then the packed centre court, in the mercurial fashion of sports fans, felt his pain – and rose as one to give him a standing ovation that just wouldn’t stop. Merci, he mouthed over and over again as he bowed to them, and still they clapped and still they chanted for him, enveloping him in the consoling warmth of one vast virtual hug. And then the tears came and would not be denied.
Sachin Tendulkar has talked, often and eloquently, of March 1, 2003, and of the Pool A game of that year’s ICC World Cup against Pakistan. “It was on my mind for a year,” he has said. Even when he tried to put it out of his head and concentrate on more immediate battles, the thought kept intruding. Maybe that is what defines the champion: the relentless focus on the insurmountable challenge.
Thus it was for Nole who, late into that night when the tears stopped flowing, set his sights on the seemingly unattainable. The game, for him, truly began afterwards; the quest became a consuming obsession, every immediate challenge merely an opportunity to hone himself for a fifth assault on tennis’ version of the Murder Wall. The desire was so all-consuming, it even became the subject of a book – titled, appropriately enough, The Quest — for which Nole and every member of his staff willingly sat for interviews, both before and after consummating the titular quest by lifting the Coupes des Mousquetaires this time last year.
But if sporting romance is embodied in the story of one who typifies Tennyson’s Ulysses and knows ‘to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield’, then that story is incomplete without its antithesis: the irresistible force, shaped of clay to excel on clay in a manner and with an inevitability that has no precedent.
Since the day Rafael Nadal on his 19th birthday defeated Roger Federer in the semi-final of the 2005 French Open and, two days later, went on to take the title defeating whatsisname, the trophy has become as much a part of his kit as his shoes, his racquets and other neatly-organised accouterments.
Since that day only two men – the unheralded and since-retired Robin Soderling in 2009 and Djokovic last year – have ever managed to defeat him at Roland Garros, the former to end a 31-0 streak that began in 2005, the latter the more storied blemish on Nadal’s French CV that read 89-2 coming into this latest edition.
If feats distinguish years, and if Nadal maintains the form that propelled him, unruffled, impenetrable, invincible, into the quarter-finals this Sunday, then 2017 will go down as the year of the ‘perfect ten times three’. Nadal earlier this year annexed his 10th title at the Real Club de Tenis Barcelona; then his tenth at the Monte Carlo Masters. At Roland Garros thus far, the only person on court who has even remotely ruffled his equanimity is the chair umpire who this weekend slapped him on the wrist for slow play.
In a recent column celebrating the romance of Nadal and the perfect 10, ace sportswriter Rohit Brijnath talks of champions who have been the gold standard at various arenas – Djokovic with six titles at the Australian Open for example; or Federer and Sampras with seven each at Wimbledon. “But no one is Nadal’s equal,” says Rohit. “He is first because somehow he lasts. His multiple 10s are a blend of excellence and consistency, stubbornness and survival. More than just a player, he seems in some ways to be an explorer, venturing where no athlete has. The Reinhold Messner of the dust.”