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Nadal vs. Djokovic: Metal Gods on Fire

A running diary of an instant tennis classic

Rafa Nadal’s best matches against Novak Djokovic are the closest tennis gets to a metal concert — sweaty, technically proficient, fury-bellowing men assisting each other in the commission of extreme assaults on the senses. If you watched their testosterone-soaked, six-hour doomfest in the Australian Open final last year, you know this already. There aren’t really strategies in play when they meet, because that would imply that either of them had exploitable weaknesses. Instead, it’s just an all-out frenzy to play faster, louder, longer, and with less mercy. It’s phenomenal theater, even if the laser projections of dragons bursting from the eye sockets of red skulls are mostly left to your imagination.

When Nole and Rafa drew the 1 and 3 seeds in the French Open this year, it felt wrong. The top-ranked player in the world and the winner of seven of the last eight titles at Roland Garros, meeting in the semifinals instead of the finals? But metal isn’t about picking your moments, or staging things at the appropriate time. Metal is about shredding the world when you’ve got the chance to shred it. And with that in mind, there was no way I was going to miss this match, the most highly anticipated of 2013 — even if NBC made it as hard as possible to watch by exiling the live coverage to the Tennis Channel and not broadcasting the tournament nationally until 11 a.m.1

Well, you know what unjust exile sounds like? You know what not being able to air on national TV because some clueless network executive doesn’t understand the culture sounds like? IT SOUNDS LIKE METAL. Oh, and I kept a running diary to help remind myself what it felt like when I still had ears.

First Set: A Summons of Blood

7:01 a.m. ET — We are live from the Stade Roland Garros on the western edge of Paris. Well, I’m live from my house in Pennsylvania. Ted Robinson and John McEnroe are on the call, and I’m guessing they’re in Paris. I’m almost sure they’re not in my house.

7:02 — The players are on the court. Nadal comes out first, because he’s the lower seed, which is nuts. Djokovic is wearing a teal Uniqlo zip-up, white shorts, and a white baseball cap. Nadal’s in a white top and shorts that may be pink or may be Nantucket red, I can’t tell. None of this gear is exactly Pantera-approved, even if Nadal’s headband (weirdly?) makes him look like a medieval knight.

7:03 — A Tennis Channel infographic pops up to inform us that Nadal is 19-15 all time against Djokovic, but 12 of his wins are on clay, so his record is actually a lot less dominant. Except … wait, what surface do they play the French Open on?

7:04 — It’s a warm, dry day in Paris, which favors Nadal, but it’s windy, which favors Djokovic. The weather just wants a good match, guys. The weather just wants to see some tennis.

7:05 — McEnroe says that “Nadal is just trying to prove that he can be the greatest player who ever lived.” Oh, is that all? On the other hand, though — I mean, is there any better way to describe the stakes for Nadal? He’s at this juncture in his career where he’s either kind of a has-been or potentially on course to be the greatest of all time. There’s no real middle ground at this point.

7:10 — The guys are still hitting warm-up serves past each other. For the record, they’ve already been out there longer than Serena Williams during Thursday’s 6-0, 6-1 win over Sara Errani, which lasted four minutes, three of which were for a commercial break.

7:11 — The camera pans over a bunch of empty seats, and Ted Robinson is not amused. “It’s the French culture. It’s lunchtime. Lunchtime is sacred here,” he sighs, clearly not feeling this decadent French interest in consuming food in the middle of the day. French Lunchtime sounds like the worst metal band in existence.

7:14 — And we are under way! Djokovic opens with a fault but recovers to win the first point. Stats Time: Djokovic is now on pace to complete 0 percent of his first serves, but still win every point and take the match 6-0, 6-0, 6-0. This has been Stats Time, sponsored by Swatch.

7:16 — Djokovic wins the first game. He’s looking tense but confident, like an anal-retentive piano teacher backstage at the big recital. Nadal, as always, is scowling like a king who’s just condemned his only brother to death.

7:18 — Djokovic takes the first point on Nadal’s serve. For what it’s worth, and obviously it’s worth a lot, we’re still on pace for 6-0, 6-0, 6-0.

7:20 — Djokovic has the best service-return game “arguably in our history,” McEnroe says. I love the way tennis people use the word “our” when they talk about the game. It’s like they’re a small, fiercely proud mountain nation or a clan of non-lunching Highlanders or something.

7:25 — Nadal struggles through a couple of deuces to win his first service game with an absolutely savage cross-court passing shot. It’s 1-1, and we’re now on pace for a five-set match with zero service breaks and five tiebreakers. Momentum has SHIFTED.

7:32 — Hey, Goran Ivanisevic is in the stands today! Or is it Gavin Rossdale? I think it might be both. Celebrities always look so happy and carefree at tennis tournaments. I think it’s the only time they’re allowed to get sun without entering either the shame vortex of the beach or the brunch vortex of an outdoor brunch restaurant.

7:34 — We’re at 2-2, all even so far. The players have now officially been on the court longer than Serena Williams at her last two tournaments.

7:35 — The Tennis Channel flashes a graphic showing how much higher Nadal’s topspin shots are bouncing today vs. at the last match these guys played on clay, which was at Monte Carlo in April. Takeaway: The court is Death Valley dry, which really favors Nadal because he loves metaphors that involve capitalizing death.

7:41 — At deuce on Djokovic’s serve, Nole smacks a murderous two-handed backhand that leaves Nadal lunging at the air. We’re still on serve, 3-2 Djokovic. I’m starting to think that “five sets, all tiebreakers” joke might have been a solid prediction.

7:44 — Ted Robinson is still irate about all the empty seats in the stadium. “Even in Paris, on a sunny afternoon, where would you rather be?” he seethes. “Hermès,” John McEnroe answers. Wait, does Hermès serve lunch?

7:45 — The Tennis Channel gives us a super-slo-mo close-up of Nadal whipping a lariat forehand while detaching all his facial muscles from his skull. Incidentally, this match has featured some unbelievable forehands so far. It’s like a Museum of Forehands (the second-worst metal band in existence).

7:50 — We’re parked at deuce at 3-3 on Djokovic’s serve. If you had to give the edge to anybody so far, Nadal looks a little more dangerous. He’s moving Djokovic around, being a little freer with his shots. The announcers are speculating that something’s wrong with Djokovic’s foot.

7:54 — In a long, back-and-forth game with multiple deuces and break points, Nadal finally gets the break for 4-3. The Tennis Channel serves up a replay of an earlier point where Djokovic stumbled a little and came up holding his hamstring. It’s not at all clear, but he may be dealing with a minor injury here. What I do know is that he’s yelling at himself, hitting balls long, and suddenly looking semi-helpless against Nadal’s serve. His expression has definitely shifted from “anal-retentive piano teacher” to “overworked bank manager who may be about to go on a killing spree.”

7:55 — That could be a good sign or it could be a bad sign. Unless you work in a bank, in which case it’s just a bad sign.

7:58 — Nadal blocks back a high volley while running toward the net to hold for 5-3. It may be a minor area of concern for Djokovic that he’s won zero points in Rafa’s last two service games.

8:01 — Djokovic holds for 5-4, and now it gets interesting. Rafa will serve for the set.

8:04 — Early in the game, Djokovic flashes an utterly brilliant ad-court return to stave off what’s starting to feel like the inevitable. It’s 5-4, 15-15. But on the next point, Nadal hits a cross-court forehand that deserves to be displayed in the Museum of Forehands lobby, on a pretty tall pedestal, with a sign banning flash photography. It’s double set point for Nadal.

8:06 — Djokovic sails a return 10 feet past the baseline, and Rafa has won the first set! Only took about 50 minutes. No idea why people act like these guys tend to play hard-fought matches.

Second Set: Sound of Distress

8:13 — Djokovic holds easily to open the set, and suddenly, he no longer appears to be injured. Sometimes I think half the injuries are mind games, only mind games that have become so byzantine and recursive that even the players no longer really know who started them or what purpose they were meant to serve. Don’t a lot of losses in tennis feel like they were sort of accidentally on purpose?

8:15 — Nadal moves Djokovic out of position, Nole sprays a backhand wide, and he treats us to a pretty mighty rage-bellow in response. Bank tellers and piano students within about a five-block radius of Roland Garros instinctively clutch their heads and duck.

Spain's Rafael Nadal

8:20 — We’re on serve in the second, 2-1. Not like it’s terribly insightful, but the next few games could be huge. If Rafa can get another break soon, it’s going to put Djokovic in a huge hole, down a set and a break on clay to the greatest clay-court player ever. You don’t really come back in that scenario without a Superman-flying-backward-around-Earth-to-reverse-the-flow-of-time type of performance. Which Djokovic is totally capable of, so nothing means anything here, does it?

8:25 — Granted, I’ve been typing a lot, but I haven’t seen a single accidental close-up of Rafa digging his underwear out of his ass crack yet. Credit to today’s cameramen — they’re the real heroes out there.

8:26 — Nadal holds for 2-2 in the second. Stats Time: Nadal’s won 69 percent of his second serves so far. That’s a terrible stat for Djokovic. This has been Stats Time, brought to you by the McDonald’s in the Hermès lobby.

8:29 — Djokovic jumps out to a 30-0 lead but commits a couple of uncharacteristic errors (i.e., they were errors) to give Rafa the massive break. 3-2 Rafa. Nadal is looking extremely calm — he’s sneering only a little, which is like the tenderest expression from him. Djokovic is looking both bug-eyed and vengeful, like an Imperial admiral who just got chewed out, but not quite killed, by Darth Vader.

8:33 — In vital match news, I’m eating sausage and eggs for breakfast. Fried eggs, a little salt, a little pepper. Simple but solid. What do we always say is the most important thing? Breakfast. Eat a good breakfast, you guys. Breakfast is metal.

8:39 — After a tough, back-and-forth game, both players wind up at net and Rafa misses a sliced cross-court volley. It’s break point no. 3 … and Rafa bobbles a forehand wide. We’re back on serve at 3-3. That is huge for Djokovic. Breakfast huge. I wasn’t expecting that.

8:43 — Nole’s starting to find the range with his backhand. This is bad news for Rafa, really good news for anyone who wants to see more Rafa drama-sneer.

8:50 — Wow. Djokovic has woken ALL THE WAY UP. He crushes a monster forehand to break Nadal for the second straight time, and all of a sudden he’s serving for the second set. Remember when his foot was supposedly injured? This came out of nowhere.

8:52 — And Djokovic consolidates with the easy hold to win the second set. He’s now won four games in a row. Don’t look now, but this match is getting awesome.

Third Set: The Harrowing of the Hallowed

8:58 — The bad news is piling up for Rafa — now the grounds crew is watering the court. Good-bye, cracked, parched, postapocalyptic hellscape that he loved. Hello, verdant lushness. Sigh.

8:59 — Maybe more important: Since his comeback in February, Rafa hasn’t had to play even a four-set match, much less a five-setter, against an opponent of Djokovic’s caliber. How will his body hold up if this thing goes long? Can his lips withstand the unbroken hours of sneering?

9:00 — The third set opens with a ludicrous, endless, 25-shot rally, won by Nadal. I didn’t look at the stats, but I’m pretty sure that also lasted longer than Serena’s win over Errani.

9:08 — And now things are moving too fast to describe. Nadal followed up the long rally with an opening-game hold, then immediately broke Djokovic, then, while I was writing that down, easily held in his next service game. I blinked and it was 3-0. I’d write that Djokovic blinked, but I’m pretty sure Djokovic has trained himself to blink 2,500 times in a row right before going to bed and never at any other moment.

9:17 — Nadal breaks again. It’s 4-0. I don’t know what’s happening. I would be describing tennis here but I feel a little concussed.

9:22 — 5-0. It’s like Nadal decided he didn’t like oxygen anymore and just got rid of all the oxygen.

9:25 — You know what’s not metal? FUCKING OXYGEN.

9:30 — After bouncing the ball for 11 consecutive minutes before his serve, Nadal gets handed a time violation, leading to a long, angry speech from McEnroe about how all umpires should be sacrificed to a volcano. Somewhere in there, Djokovic won a game, but the set concludes 6-1. Just when it seemed like Djokovic had found his footing, Nadal went to a higher level of fiery retribution. This match could be getting away from Nole. Guitar solo.

Fourth Set: By the Lambs of Their Slavering Makers

9:41 — I took a break to get something to drink and got back just in time for a point with about six drop shots. This match has gone into strange territory. Ted Robinson used the word “bloops.” That’s either a baseball term or his nickname for Frenchmen who eat at noontime.

9:46 — Nadal wrong-foots Djokovic and then hits a Museum-quality forehand into the open court. A couple of minutes later, Djokovic dumps a shot into the net and we’re at 2-2, on serve in the fourth.

9:48 — Possibly relevant: Djokovic with 21 unforced backhand errors compared to nine for Nadal.

9:49 — That said, Djokovic has clearly regrouped and is looking really strong in this fourth set, at least on his own serve. Easy holds so far. 3-2.

9:52 — If these guys were really metal bands, I think Djokovic would be called Ritual of Panic and Nadal would be called Red Trajectory. To extend this metaphor, Andy Murray would be called Hunger Dragon and Roger Federer would be a string octet.

9:57 — A series of pretty amazing defensive plays wins Nadal two break points. On the first, Djokovic drags him out to the right and then smacks an unhittable shot out to the left: textbook. On the second, Nadal hits a forehand with so much spin on it that the orientation of the Earth’s axis wobbles and Djokovic goofs the ball into space. Nadal breaks; it’s 4-3. Not the first time Djokovic has been down a set and a break in this match, but I don’t know how else to put it — it’s just getting real serious for Ritual of Panic out there.

10:02 — Djokovic skates two shots off the lines to give himself a shot at a break point of his own, 15-30 …

10:02 — … and a two-handed backhand winner makes it 15-40 …

10:03 — … and wow wow wow. A seemingly impossible return catches Nadal totally off guard; Djokovic breaks back. It’s 4-all and this match is not yet over.

10:05 — Stats Time: The players have now been on the court for just about half as long as they were for their epic Australian Open final last year. This has been Stats Time, brought to you by a grueling display of cartilage-melting endurance.

10:06 — Another fun tidbit: The players have now officially been on the court for longer than Serena Williams in her entire career.

10:07 — A quick hold at love for Djokovic. 5-4 Nole. Rafa’s now serving to stay in the set.

10:13 — “A powerful shot indeed!” McEnroe exclaims as Nadal goes Discipline and Punish on a forehand. Johnny Mac’s not fantasizing about Hermès now, hoo boy.

10:15 — After Nadal holds for 5-5, Djokovic commits an incomprehensible down-the-line backhand error to give Nadal a break point. And Nadal converts it. And just like that, Rafa is serving for the match at 6-5.

10:21 — But no! Djokovic hangs in to force another break point of his own. This match has been so back-and-forth I’m starting to get whiplash, which, ha ha tennis joke ha ha.

10:22 — And Djokovic gets the break, with an off-his-feet bullwhip-crack of a forehand return. The Museum of Forehands is adding another wing after this match. You and I? We’re going to a tiebreak.

10:23 — The first point in the tiebreak bruises every bone in my body, and I’m not even in Paris. 1-0 Djokovic.

10:25 — Djokovic jumps out to a 4-1 lead and suddenly he’s playing like it’s 2011 and he could win doubles at Wimbledon by himself. Nadal’s real metal name right now might be Candelabra of the Everlasting Unhappiness. He is radiating a vibe of approximately I hate this and it sucks.

10:29 — Djokovic with an overhand smash and suddenly Nole’s staring at 6-3 and multiple set points.

10:31 — Nadal mishits a backhand at net and gives Djokovic the set. I don’t want to make a big deal out of this, so let’s stay pretty cool about what I’m going to write here in a second, but Nadal is going to a fifth set for — again: no big thing — just the SECOND TIME IN HIS CAREER AT THE FRENCH OPEN.

Fifth Set: Thundercrack

10:31 — Back in 2004, when the Schick Quattro was the latest thing on the men’s-razor mass-blade-spamming front, The Onion ran a mock-editorial by the president of Gillette called “Fuck Everything, We’re Doing Five Blades.” It’s one of the best things The Onion ever published, not because it predicted the absurd genius of the Gillette Fusion but mostly because, well:

You’re taking the “safety” part of “safety razor” too literally, grandma. Cut the strings and soar. Let’s hit it. Let’s roll. This is our chance to make razor history. Let’s dream big. All you have to do is say that five blades can happen, and it will happen. If you aren’t on board, then fuck you.

Why do I bring this up? Because let’s hit it. Let’s roll. Fuck everything, we’re doing five sets.

Anything could happen here. Djokovic could win 6-0. Nadal could win 6-0. They could play to such a level draw that some enterprising officials get together and invent a sixth set. You know how I’m always writing about how men’s tennis is more fun when Nadal is healthy? THIS IS WHY.

10:36 — But it’s an awful, awful opening game from Nadal. He’s serving, he double-faults here, he misses some shots there, and suddenly he’s let the triumphant post-tiebreak Djokovic run out to a 0-40 lead. Rafa looks insanely discouraged, which — if history is any guide — means he’s about to dig down to the core of the Earth and respond with some new superhuman, magma-fueled level of effort. This is new territory for him, though.

10:38 — Rafa saves two of the break points, but not the third. We’re in the fifth set, and Djokovic has his first proper lead of the match. 1-0.

10:44 — Rafa bungles a break point that could have leveled the match, and his sneer is napalm-grade at this point.

Djokovic Album Art - Graphic by Brian Phillips

10:48 — Djokovic looks fresher, sharper, more focused, crisper, like he eats better, like he sleeps more, like he probably keeps up with Oprah’s book club, and like he’s a whole lot less existentially miserable than Nadal right now. He may let his employees go home early from the bank. This match is unreal. Nadal’s been visibly the superior player for the majority of the match, but somehow Djokovic just clung to life and now he’s doing the professional wrestler thing of WHAT WAS I INJURED IS MY FOREHEAD COVERED IN BLOOD AAAAAAH WHEN YOU CHEER FOR ME I DON’T FEEL IT.

10:50 — Nadal gets on the board, 2-1 Djokovic. And here’s a fun wrinkle: Remember how I said that the idiotic broadcast schedule means that national coverage of the semifinals only starts at 11 a.m.? Well, now the Tennis Channel is switching announcers midway through the fifth set so that McEnroe and Robinson can get to the NBC studio. So not only has NBC made sure that it’s extremely hard for a lot of hard-core fans to watch the match of the year, they’re also destroying the continuity of the experience for the people who are able to watch it. Hey, super job, NBC!

10:53 — I really can’t overstress how ridiculous this is. The new Tennis Channel announcers, Some Guy and Justin Gimelstob, keep reminding us that “we’re going to keep broadcasting this semifinal till it’s over.” So that’s where we’re at in 2013? Just glad that someone’s airing the whole match? I mean, really, guys, you sure you don’t want to sneak in a quick showing of Heidi?

11:02 — After a grueling, multiple-deuce game that also involved some channel changes and at least five separate commentators, Nadal holds; it’s 3-2 Djokovic.

11:05 — And Nole holds at love. He’s suddenly two games from the final. I repeat: This is unbelievable.

11:12 — Trailing 4-3 in the fifth, Nadal obliterates two straight winners to jump out to a 30-0 lead on Djokovic’s serve. Let’s see if he can do anything with this …

11:17 — Djokovic is given a timing violation! We hit deuce! Then Djokovic hits a winner … but he crashes into the net after hitting the ball! Due to various thorns and brambles in the rules of tennis, the ball has to bounce twice before the striking player is allowed to touch the net, so it’s Nadal’s point. Advantage: Rafa.

11:18 — But Djokovic plays a brilliant point to bring what is pretty clearly the pivotal game of the whole tournament back to deuce …

11:19 — But Rafa hits a ludicrous cross-court winner to get the ad back …

11:20 — And Djokovic dumps a forehand into the net! We are back on serve in the fifth. NBC is rocking a national feed so we get to hear John McEnroe throw around the word “miraculous.” THIS IS WHY I THINK TENNIS IS BETTER WHEN RAFA IS HEALTHY. Even if you don’t like him personally, would you really rather have seen Djokovic finish off Wawrinka two hours ago? Rafa is just an engine that produces brilliant matches.

11:22 — Oh, hey, there are no fifth-set tiebreaks at the French Open. Just something to keep in mind.

11:29 — It’s 5-all. Remember the part in Watership Down where it’s explained that rabbits who get too freaked out go into something called a tharn state, which is where they basically freeze up and huddle shivering in the grass, not in any way escaping from predators or writing adequate tennis commentary? I’ve gone pretty tharn at this point.

11:30 — If I don’t write anything, just assume amazing things are happening.

11:31 — […]

11:32 — […]

11:33 — […]

11:34 — […]

11:35 — […]

11:36 — Are we at 6-6 in the fifth set of one of the greatest French Open matches ever? Yes. Yes we are.

11:38 — Winners count so far: Nadal 58, Djokovic 52.

11:44 — At 7-6, Nadal wins a point on Djokovic’s serve with a between-the-legs lob. I mean, obviously.

11:50 — Oh my God: […]

11:51 — Four hours and thirty-seven minutes into the match. It’s 8-freaking-7, on serve in the fifth set. Djokovic serving. Nadal gets lucky with a couple of returns, Djokovic mishits a shot, and suddenly — and by the way, I know I keep using that word, but that’s how it feels, isn’t it, when you’re watching a great tennis match? It feels like these little status quos keep hardening and then, even though you know they can’t last, even though you know change is inevitable, when the change does come it seems sudden, like the match should have lasted forever, like whole epochs should have bloomed and withered while Nadal and Djokovic stayed on serve in the fifth, mountain clans rising, maritime civilizations falling into the sea …

11:51 — What I was trying to say: Suddenly, Nadal’s looking at three match points.

11:52 — On the first one, Djokovic misjudges the spin on Nadal’s return and sends it long. And Rafa Nadal is your 2013 French Open champion!

11:54 — Oh, wait, it was only the semifinal.

11:55 — Screw it: Rafa Nadal is your 2013 French Open champion!

We finish at 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 9-7. Nadal gives an extremely strange trilingual postmatch interview with a person I believe to be the vice-provost of the Sorbonne, Djokovic exits heartbroken, and the golden age of men’s tennis rolls on another day. On Sunday, Nadal will play David Ferrer in his 17th major final, and for his eighth French Open championship. You’d better believe I’ll be watching. In the meantime, I think I can speak for all tennis fans when I say: Our ears are bleeding. We spent $40 on the T-shirt. And the smile on our faces will last for the rest of the week.

Filed Under: Events, French Open, Novak Djokovic, People

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Brian Phillips is a staff writer for Grantland.

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