By Randy Walker
Rafael Nadal’s 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 9-7 win over world No. 1 Novak Djokovic was undoubtedly the signature match of the 2013 French Open.
In their semifinal match, hyped since the moment the tournament’s draw was made exactly two weeks ago, produced a high-level of play and drama, fascinating ebbs and flows of momentum, not to mention the highest of superlatives from the media and fans from an highly viral environment on social media. John McEnroe called it perhaps the greatest match ever on a clay court. Bud Collins tweeted that it was “one of the most thrilling matches played at the French Open.”
Significant historical implications hung in the balance in the match as Nadal, only once beaten at Roland Garros in eight previous appearances, is in pursuit of his record-extending eighth French title – attempting to become the first man in the Open Era to win as many titles at a major tournament. Djokovic, a six-time major winner, is seeking to finally close out a “Career Grand Slam” and become only the eighth player in men’s tennis history to accomplish the feat. With No. 4 seed David Ferrer and No. 6 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga playing in the other semifinal match, many called this semifinal match the de facto men’s final.
When analyzing and ranking the greatest tennis matches of all-time, I go to who I consider the authority on the subject, Steve Flink, the well-respected tennis writer and observer who authored the book that I published THE GREATEST TENNIS MATCHES OF ALL TIME ($28.95, New Chapter Press, available here: http://www.amazon.com/The-Greatest-Tennis-Matches-Time/dp/0942257936/ref=tmm_hrd_title_0
“I knew you would be asking me this,” Flink responded via email from Paris when I lobbed in my inquiry for his thoughts on the just concluded epic.
I asked Flink what his general impressions of the match were, how he thought it stacked up all time and, anticipating where Steve would rate the match, how it stacks up as one of the best semifinal matches of all time and among majors. All of the Djokvoic-Nadal matches will be compared to their 2012 Australian Open final, won by Djokovic 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 in five hours, 53 minutes.
“What made this so outstanding was that a match that had been well played but not phenomenal for three sets took on a new identity the last two sets,” Flink wrote. “Djokovic’s comeback in the fourth set when Nadal served for the match at 6-5 and reached 30-15— and Nadal’s subsequent rally from 2-4 down in the fifth— were both exhilarating for the fans and evidence of what supreme competitors both men are. I thought the best tennis was late in the fourth set and right on through the fifth, a testament to the fitness and character of both participants.”
In Flink’s book, he has five semifinal matches featured as the greatest ever and Flink would place Nadal-Djokovic from Roland Garros in 2013 in that company.
“It was definitely among the finest semifinals ever played,” Flink wrote of Nadal vs. Djokovic. “In my book, Henri Cochet – Bill Tilden (1927 Wimbledon) is No. 10, Rod Laver-Tony Roche Australian Open 1969 is No. 16, Justine Henin-Jennifer Capriati US Open 2003 is No. 17, Serena Williams-Maria Sharapova Australian Open 2005 is No. 23, Jack Kramer-Don Budge US Pro 1948 is No. 24. I would put this one right up there among the classic semifinals, and would possibly add the Bjorn Borg-Vitas Gerulaitis 1977 Wimbledon semifinal to that list when only considering semifinals.”
In January of 2012, just as Steve and I were in the process of putting to bed and publishing THE GREATEST TENNIS MATCHES OF ALL TIME, the Djokovic-Nadal epic final from the 2012 Australian Open final occurred. With only weeks before the book was due to be delivered to book distributors around the world, I emailed Steve to find out if the match that we had just witnessed needed to be included in his compilation. It was. Flink would rate the match as the No. 7 match of all time. The freshness of the match would make for a more attractive book cover and the image of Rafael Nadal from Wimbledon in 2008 (Flink’s greatest match of all time) was replaced with a image of Nadal and Djokovic from the Australian Open.
The Nadal-Djokovic French semifinal would not hold as much cache as their 2012 Australian Open epic in the long run.
“Comparing it to the Djokovic-Nadal match in Australia last year is difficult,” Flink wrote. “That was a final so the title was on the line and it was even more astounding from a physical standpoint, lasting five hours and fifty three minutes, more than an hour longer than today’s clash. The similarity was that both players found another level at the end of the fourth and through the fifth. But this was a stupendous battle in every way and it will rank up there among Nadal’s greatest personal triumphs.”