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June 18, 2012
Maria Sharapova regained the top ranking in Paris, and Rafael Nadal took down his chief rival, setting the stage for Wimbledon and the Olympics
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June 18, 2012

The Plot Thickens (again)

Maria Sharapova regained the top ranking in Paris, and Rafael Nadal took down his chief rival, setting the stage for Wimbledon and the Olympics

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The setting was the 16th arrondissement of Paris, not District 12 of Panem. The time was tennis's gilded present, not a dystopian postapocalyptic future. The stakes were something less than life and death, but make no mistake: The 2012 French Open represented seven rounds of gladiatorial Hunger Games. Yes, the champions—Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova—consistently pounded the ball over the net with force and accuracy. In the end, though, they survived because they were driven by superior motivation, desire and tenacity.

For eight years now Nadal has been a leading protagonist in men's tennis, which provides the most gripping narrative in sports. The plot doesn't just twist with each big event. It bends and folds and sometimes doubles back. Pretenders become contenders. Old monarchs are dethroned. The fierce battles between the second-ranked Nadal and No. 1 Novak Djokovic—arguably the rivalry in sports right now—are less about big serves and deep ground strokes than about imposing will, one man taking up residence in the other's head.

When casual followers of the tennis plot last left Nadal, he had lost an epic six-hour Australian Open final to Djokovic, his seventh straight defeat to the Serb. This was the new world order: After years as odd man out, Djokovic had supplanted both Nadal and Roger Federer atop the ladder. The Aussie Open was his third straight major title. Suddenly his name had crept into the Greatest of All Time discussion. If Federer's best days were behind him and Nadal was incapable of mounting much resistance, why couldn't Djokovic eventually beat their records? Plus, he was suddenly gunning for the noncalendar Grand Slam: holding all four major titles simultaneously. No man, including Federer and Nadal, had won four in a row since Rod Laver in 1969.

Immediately after the Australian final, even Nadal's closest confidants wondered if Djokovic had broken their man's (theretofore indestructible) spirit. They got their answer the following day. When Team Nadal gathered for lunch at a Melbourne steak house, Rafa was almost giddy. ¿Qué pasa? He calmly told them, "I lost last night, but now I know I can beat him again." With that (cue the martial music), Nadal took aim at Djokovic, preparing to meet him in Paris in much the same way a boxer anticipates a title fight.

Nadal beat Djokovic earlier this spring on clay in both Monte Carlo and Rome, further stoking his confidence. Upon arriving in Paris, he passed on the regal hotels patronized by other top players, spending the fortnight at a modest inn owned by Spaniards. His room had roughly the square footage of an airplane lavatory, so Nadal couldn't hold Xbox tournaments and soccer-viewing parties as he usually does. Instead he sometimes sat on his bed, sparked up YouTube on his iPad and watched videos of his wins over Djokovic for inspiration. When he practiced, it was less often at Roland Garros than on courts in the Bois de Boulogne, the city's large public park. "It was," says Nadal, "all about focus."

Roland Garros has always been Nadal's personal terrarium, a venue where he has lost only one match in his entire career (to Robin Söderling, in the fourth round in 2009). But his level of play at this French Open was supernatural. Heading into the final he'd dropped no sets and lost his serve only once. Before facing Nadal in the semifinals, his opponent, No. 6 David Ferrer, was asked about the challenge. He responded fatalistically, "I think you can win a set against Rafa, but winning a match against Rafa is almost impossible." What Ferrer lacks in optimism he makes up for in clairvoyance. Ferrer (again: the world's sixth-best player) was obliterated 6--2, 6--2, 6--1.

In the final Nadal, as planned, faced his nemesis, the one player in the draw who could bring comparable hunger to bear. Just consider how Djokovic had gotten to this point. In the fourth round he lost the first two sets to Italian journeyman Andreas Seppi before devising a successful exit strategy. Veni, vidi, vixi. (I came, I saw, I lived.) Next Djokovic faced four match points against France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, ranked No. 5 in the world. With the entire stadium against him, the Serb swung away without inhibition. Tsonga did not choke. Djokovic won each match point and, inevitably, the match. Afterward he was philosophical. "I don't want to be wise now and say, O.K., I know how to play when I'm match points down," he said. "[But] look ... this level of tennis is very mental, you know, lots of emotions."

In the semis Djokovic avenged his last Grand Slam defeat—at the 2011 French Open—and waxed Federer in straight sets. It was still another indication that the Great One, while still competitive at 30, is past his peak, especially on a slower court.

Then, in the afternoon mist on Sunday, Nadal and Djokovic marched 94 paces and unsheathed their weapons, meeting in the final of, preposterously, the fourth straight major event. Nadal had been so energized in the locker room that he practically broke a well-wisher's hand slapping him five. Much in the way that he had buzz-sawed through his first six matches, Nadal broke Djokovic's serve almost at will, winning the first two sets 6--4, 6--3 and leading 2--0 in the third. But then, four games from sweet victory, from thwarting the Novak Slam and regaining some measure of supremacy, Nadal played a few sloppy points. At the other end of the court, Djokovic began dialing in his shots. After that, le déluge. Djokovic won a game. Then two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight consecutive games. Against Rafael Nadal. On clay. All of Nadal's doubts against Djokovic had come screaming back.

During a rain delay Nadal's camp told him he was giving Djokovic too much respect. Mercifully for Nadal, play was called at 2--1, Djokovic, in the fourth set. (This is what happens when you have no roof, no lights and start a match after 3 p.m. in the spring in Paris.) After a fitful night Nadal was his old self when play resumed on Monday afternoon. Navigating the clay like a sea captain who knows all the currents, he broke Djokovic twice and closed out the match 7--5. When the Serb double-faulted on match point, Nadal fell to his knees and cried, something he hadn't done since winning his first title in Paris at age 19.

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