French title central to ambitions of Serb and Spaniard

French title central to ambitions of Serb and Spaniard

In Barcelona comes bedlam. Unforced error. Unforced error. Unforced error. The clay-court composer is producing off-key "awful" music.

In the memory, Rafael Nadal is a stroke-playing, bottle- arranging study in precision; in his current, clumsy avatar, Nadal, who at 5-4 is serving for the second set against Fabio Fognini, errs thrice, in length, spin, idea, confidence. It is like a machine on the wrong setting.

In Spain, Nadal's serve folded and finally he fell 4-6, 6-7 in the third round. In Serbia, a holidaying Novak Djokovic may have watched but not smiled. He will know this is only the prelude to Paris and everything for these two men this year will be defined by Paris. Last year, Nadal lost Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome but won Paris. Last year, Djokovic won Rome and lost Paris.

For four weeks till the French Open, tennis will think almost nothing else and no one else. For not since Rafa hounded Roger at Wimbledon has tennis been so distilled to two men and one trophy.

"For me, the most important thing is to win Roland Garros."

You can hear Djokovic saying that. But in truth it was said by Nadal last year, after he won, and both men cried, reminding us how beautiful it is to want something.

For four weeks we're going to wonder how this is not really a rivalry of surface but, almost uniquely to sport, of place. Jimmy Connors blustered about Bjorn Borg, "I'll follow him to the ends of the earth", but this is just Djokovic following Nadal to one court in Roland Garros. Since 2011, he is 5-5 with Nadal on clay but in Paris it is 3-0 Nadal.

For four weeks we will consider how two men need one title for varying reasons. Nadal's pressure is ownership, not of clay itself, which has been lost, but of Paris for it defines his legend. Since 2010 he has won a single slam - 2013 US Open - outside that precinct but never lost in that arena.

Nine titles in Paris, more than any man in any slam, gives a player a sense of empire. As Sandy Gordon, sports psychology professor at the University of Western Australia, says of men who own arenas: "It gives a sense of comfort and belonging, a sense of oneness, a sense of flow.

You visualise it, you feel it, you smell it, you look forward to it." In Paris, Nadal has been like Laurence Olivier in a Shakespeare play, as if this is where he finds his fundamental self. He has the aura there but he must remember his lines.

Djokovic's stress is of belonging. He cannot enter history's exclusive conversation - only seven men in 138 years have won all four slams - unless he has the French. He is No.1 yet lacks only this one, he is an astonishing talent but with an asterisk.

The more polished his game becomes, the more bewildering this gap in his CV. Yet to pressure he brings a lean persistence. On Twitter, there is an elegant picture of him doing a pull-up with legs extended like a gymnast. When it comes to suffering, the Serb is the Spaniard's equal.

Four weeks is what Nadal has to find form and no one dares lose faith only because he never has. Much like the Paris clay, built of a layer of stones, clinker, limestone and brick dust, Nadal's favourite word is "level". Except, as he returns after a truncated 2014, he hasn't found it this year, eight events played, only one won.

"Of all the games men and women play," wrote Andre Agassi in his book Open, "tennis is the closest to solitary confinement, which inevitably leads to self-talk". Athletes excoriate themselves in private, but Nadal remarkably was unsparing of himself in public in Barcelona. He knows who he can be and yet was honest about who he is now.

"My forehand didn't have enough power, enough speed, and I didn't have enough control," he said. "My forehand has been my biggest virtue. But today my forehand was vulgar, it wasn't a forehand worthy of my ranking and career. I need my forehand to push my opponents back."

Nadal's response and his glue has always been sweat. Or as Uncle Toni once told him: "Endure, put up with whatever comes your way... push yourself to breaking point but never cave in." He is a man on some unending quest, journeying from brilliance to injury, to recovery, to feel, to aggression, to brilliance. Billie Jean King must have imagined him when she once said: "Champions keep playing until they get it right."

Nadal's repeated renewal of himself, to rebuild, then return, again and again, is stunning; Djokovic's reawakening of his 2011 dominant self is staggering. The Serb may have earlier enjoyed the security of underdog status in Paris but none of his faking body language can convince us he isn't favourite now. He has four titles this year but it is not the sum of his wins, rathertheir style which illustrates where he is.

None of his major wins has been in straight sets, yet his last sets have been as follows: 6-0 vs Stan Wawrinka (Australian Open semis), 6-0 vs Andy Murray (Australian Open final), 6-2 vs Roger Federer (Indian Wells final), 6-0 vs Murray (Miami final), 6-3 vs Tomas Berdych (Monte Carlo final).

It's the finish of an athlete who radiates confidence and as Gordon says: "As opposed to persistence or resilience, this is a clear sign of mental toughness." It almost feels as if Djokovic craves this examination - put me in a last set, watch me lift - and it is illuminating and intimidating all at once.

In four weeks, form can return. Or be lost. In four weeks, they play five sets and the longer it goes the more it suits Nadal.

In four weeks two men, inspired by each other and the same prize, will arrive at that most famous red stretch of terre battue in Paris. It means "beaten earth". Which is what Nadal did to everyone there, beat them into the ground till they turned to history's forgotten dust. But he will also know that in the cycle of sport, as in life, the earth reclaims all beauty that came from it.

This article was first published on April 25, 2015.
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