His fingers will release the racquet from his hand, and the weapon of war will drop onto the court. He will fall backwards onto the clay, eyes screwed shut, fists at first clenched and then clutching his forehead. He will get up, scarlet shirt scarred with the darker red dirt, and glance to his team in the players’ box before he goes to the net to shake the hand of his vanquished foe, and exchange some murmured words. He will grasp the hand of the umpire, then pull the sweatband from his head, shaking out his hair to loosen the strands plastered to his scalp; he will walk back out on the court with his eyes closed and head tilted backwards, arms reaching upwards, fists clenched.
This is how it will be… if Rafael Nadal wins his seventh Roland Garros crown in the men’s 2012 final.
It is part of his charm that the Spaniard follows approximately the same routine at least in part, no matter how big or comparatively small the triumph. Many are the early round wins celebrated perhaps not with the tumble to the ground, but certainly with every sign of transparent relief, as if he believed defeat was stalking him and he only just escaped its clutches. He is the only man at Roland Garros 2012 not to have surrendered a set, but no matter. Nadal needs to express outwardly that victory is never cheap. It is never a given.
For as long as he plays, and for years after that, people will speak of his record at Roland Garros; of his 51 match wins amassed so far – and the many, surely, yet to come – and in the same breath they will speak of the one shocking occasion on which he did lose, three years ago to Robin Soderling.
Throughout this whole tournament, the possibility of Nadal’s seven titles here has been spoken of with awe, but somehow granted lesser status than Novak Djokovic’s bid to become the first man in 43 years to hold all four Slam titles simultaneously. Is one potential achievement truly “better” than the other? Two weeks ago this particular observer thought the calendar Grand Slam the greater feat; but now I am not sure.
Nadal’s extraordinary dominance on clay, and especially in this place at Roland Garros, means he too has everything to lose in Sunday’s final. The burden of expectation is upon him. And he knows it.
“You cannot always win,” Nadal has said here, as if trying to get the rest of us to grasp that this rule applies to him, on clay, at Roland Garros, like everybody else. "The normal thing is to lose, because only one player wins."
We demand so much of the great players on the biggest occasions. We expect them to bring nothing to the court but their best tennis. We make no concession to real life intervening on the competitive mindset; to an off-day; to a momentary shift of focus. Nadal is not keen to indulge discussion of why he lost to Robin Soderling because “if we have to find the reasons, we have the excuses”. If pressed, he will say that his 2009 season was affected by his notoriously painful knees, and by “problems at home” (his parents were experiencing marital difficulties). But achievement in elite sport is about the elimination of every infinitesimal variable, with any possible weakness left in the locker room.
Six times we have seen Nadal tumble to the clay in the moment of tournament triumph on Philippe Chatrier Court. He, at least, understands the enormity of victory, even if we who watch cannot. The greatest days are too few to be wasted. Careers are too short. Decisions are made by those who show up. The way Nadal sees it, one way or another he did not show up against Soderling three years ago.
On clay this year, Nadal has thus far had Novak Djokovic’s number. Once again the Spaniard is the favourite, burdened by that expectation in every match he ever plays on this surface. History awaits.