Novak Djokovic's quest for tennis immortality is still alive after a typically bold fight-back and the intervention of the weather gods forced the completion of the French Open final to be held over into an extra day.
The world No.1 was trailing six-time champion Rafael Nadal 4-6, 3-6, 6-2, 2-1, but with a break of serve in his favour, when tournament organisers called off the match at 8pm last night, local time, the first time the final has gone to an extra day since 1973. Play will resume today at 1pm (noon BST), weather permitting – and the forecast is on the poor side – giving Djokovic one more night to ponder his bid for a fourth successive grand slam title and Nadal a few more hours to get his head back into the match.
For the Serb, the delay was all the more unfortunate given the way he had fought back from what looked an impossible situation, trailing Nadal, himself chasing a record seventh Roland Garros win, by two sets and a break at 2-0 in the third. But having been outplayed throughout, Djokovic summoned up one last, massive effort and until play was called off, it looked odds-on it would go to a deciding set, as it did when they played out a near six-hour epic in the final of the Australian Open in January.
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The drizzle which began midway through the first set, and which forced the players off for 35 minutes late in the second set, lessened Nadal's firepower.
By contrast, Djokovic's greater ability to flatten out his shots meant he was still able to hit through the court and, slowly, he began to make an impact. From 2-0 down in the third set, he reeled off eight straight games – an almost unbelievable achievement on Nadal's favourite surface.
After losing the third set, Nadal, who had been so dominant early on, engaged umpire Damien Dumusois of France in a heated discussion about how bad the rain was and how slippery the court had become. "You think conditions are right?" Nadal said. "Don't make a face, tell me yes or no."
Despite a bad forecast, organisers had kept the starting time at 3pm, saying television did not dictate when things would commence.
As it happened, the match began in dry conditions and world No.2 Nadal started as if he was in a hurry, ripping his forehand, especially down the line. Nadal led 3-0 as a tentative Djokovic made too many errors but the Serb hit back to level at 3-3, only to then drop his serve with his first double fault of the match and Nadal held the advantage to take the set.
Another double fault in the first game of the second set put Nadal ahead and he extended his lead to 2-0 only for Djokovic once more to hit back, taking three straight games to move ahead.
Djokovic had been shaking his head at the quality of some of Nadal's tennis but when the Spaniard broke to lead 4-3, his humour left him and he took it out on his courtside bench, smashing a hole in it with his racquet and receiving a warning as a result.
Nadal held serve before the players were forced off for 35 minutes by rain and though it was still drizzling when they returned, the Spaniard broke to take a two sets to love lead.
When the Spaniard broke Djokovic for a seventh time, it seemed as if the Serb's quest to emulate Rod Laver's 1969 achievement was over. But the Wimbledon, US Open and Australian Open champion has shown over the past two years that he is never beaten until the final ball has been struck and he immediately broke back.
Reprieved when he saved four match points in beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarter-finals, Djokovic may have felt as if it was his destiny to win the tournament. And from the moment he broke back, he was a changed man, suddenly battering Nadal further and further behind the baseline and turning the match on its head.
Now it was Nadal who was shaking his head and Djokovic took eight straight games, giving him the third set and the first two of the fourth, before Nadal held in the third game. With the rain falling more heavily, tournament referee Stefan Fransson came on to the court and told the umpire it was "too slippery".
Though Nadal must have been happy to get back in the locker room, his anger showed as he told Fransson the conditions had been just as bad an hour before. "He told me the balls were heavy and wet," Fransson said later.