FRENCH OPEN: Uneasy Rafael Nadal Survives John Isner. Does Rafa see Novak Djokovic in his Sleep?

Rafael Nadal at the French Open

This was about the big serve and relentlessness of the marathon man, John Isner. It was about some mysterious new tennis balls that fly like missiles, and no one is used to. But most of all, it was about the unease of Rafael Nadal.

He’s trying to protect his No. 1 ranking, trying to catch Bjorn Borg in history. And he’s trying to fight off Novak Djokovic.

Nadal can hear him from the other side of the draw.

So it all added up, and Isner nearly pulled off what could have been the greatest upset in tennis’ history Tuesday in the first round of the French Open. Instead, Nadal won 6-4, 6-7 (7-2), 6-7(7-2), 6-2, 6-4.

“The most difficult thing,’’ Nadal told reporters afterward, “was everything.’’

Nadal is in some real trouble here. He couldn’t get comfortable with the flight of the new Babolat balls that they’re using, couldn’t feel his own trademark spin. Meanwhile, a day earlier, Djokovic showed amazing calm and confidence in his first-round match. Advantage Djokovic.

It’s true that if you’re feeling a certain unease, playing Isner makes it worse. With his crushing serve and freakish height and angles, you can’t find a rhythm. He wins points, he loses points, and it’s hard to get any control.

On top of that, the clay at Roland Garros is faster than it used to be, and now the air is warmer, and they haven’t had any rain. All of that makes the court faster, and less like a traditional slow. . .red clay. . .French Open. To that, U.S. players say one thing: Thank you.

But also, the French Open has sold away some of its identity by signing a five-year deal with Babolat to use the ball, even though no one knows anything about it. Players say it is hard and fast. They might get used to it, but haven’t so far.

So without the feel of a French Open, American players, who don’t know how to play on red clay, are able to play tennis USA style. Sam Querrey won. American teenager Ryan Harrison, who lost in qualifying but got into the main draw as a lucky loser when someone else withdrew, took a set off No. 5 Robin Soderling. Vania King beat 22nd seed Dominika Cibulkova.

And Isner got to play American tennis against Nadal. For some reason, Isner stayed way behind the baseline in the first set, as if he were going to attempt to out-rally Nadal.

No. Way.

By the second set, he started attacking and came to the net. Nadal couldn’t get a feel for how much spin would work on the ball. These balls seem to fluff out in a hurry, meaning they change game to game. Nadal’s precision wasn’t working, and his heavy spin wasn’t reliable. It wasn’t consistent enough to keep the ball in play for the sharp angles that would make a slow Isner run.

When Isner went up two sets to one, he was outplaying Nadal.

Meanwhile, Nadal was adjusting to the combination of the ball and Isner’s serve. At 6-foot-9, Isner serves at an angle roughly the equivalent of something falling from a second-story window. Nadal was returning from way back, despite pleas from his coaching box. That allowed Isner to slice off his own angles for aces.

So Nadal finally stepped up, and from there, he raised his game. It reached a level of tennis that Isner said he had never seen.

Maybe this was just one of those moments you thank God for surviving, and then move on and forget about it. But I’m not sure it was a fluke. Nadal has a lot of new things to get used to, and not just the ball.

“Tough, tough moments for me,’’ Nadal said. “I played too nervous in my opinion.’’

How much of that was because of Djokovic? He might be better than Nadal now; this is the proving ground. About 120 days ago, Nadal went into the Australian Open trying to win his fourth consecutive major. Since then, Djokovic hasn’t lost a match, including four wins over Nadal and an Australian.

Nadal can tie Bjorn Borg’s mark of six French titles now. If he wins, he’ll have won four of the past five majors, keeping his hold on the sport. If Djokovic wins, then there is a new king.

Still, Nadal has time to settle down and settle in. He has 12 days till the final, and I still think he’ll get there. But his invincibility is gone.

What stood out Tuesday was his lack of certainty. Everyone knows Djokovic is dominating the tour, but I hadn’t realized how deeply he is already into Nadal’s mind.

About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

3 responses to “FRENCH OPEN: Uneasy Rafael Nadal Survives John Isner. Does Rafa see Novak Djokovic in his Sleep?

  • John JM

    I don’t know about this talk of “new king” or “passing the torch.” They’re both within a year of each other in age, so any guard-switching will probably happen back and forth. I don’t think if Nadal wins the title that it means he still has a hold on the sport. Because I don’t think he had it in the first place (this year). The guy lost 4 big finals in a row to the same guy. So we can’t point back a year to when he was dominating the sport to say that he still is. It just doesn’t make sense. IF Nadal beats Djoker soundly in three sets, then I’d cede major ground. But even then I don’t know how you discount 4 Master’s finals.

    Overall I think Djokovic and Nadal are of about equal greatness right now. I think we’re trying to draw too much meaning from the outcome of this tournament. Really. A big match between two phenoms could always go either way.

    • kyle hoegh

      I don’t value masters 1000s as much as john jm. 95% of how I judge a season is on 4 tournaments (grand slams). everything else is like regular season to me. How players go down in history seems to only remember majors too.

  • B Peterson

    I don’t know why when I look at Hjocovich I think of this Frankie Laine song ” If ever the devil was born without a pair of horns,it was you Jocko it was you ” I think it’s his long skinny face and big ears. Rafa is so nice to look at by comparison. CES’T MOI

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