The Rumble in the Jungle was arguably the biggest sporting event of the 20th century. It had some of the most powerful narratives in sports: the arrival of a new, younger and more powerful world champion, George Foreman and the return of a former heavyweight champion, a man called Muhammad Ali. Going into the fight, Foreman had a win loss record of 40-0, including 37 knockouts. Three years ago, on Ali’s seventieth birthday, Foreman recalled the match:
I was over-confident when I fought him. I’d gone through fighters who’d beaten him, such as Joe Frazier and Kenny Norton. All I thought was, “Should I be merciful or not?” I thought he was just one more knockout victim until, about the seventh round, I hit him hard to the jaw and he held me and whispered in my ear: “That all you got, George?” I realised that this ain’t what I thought it was.
The compelling narratives of the triumph of the underdog, the glorious restoration of an adored champion and the defiance of the old guard are not relevant to Rafael Nadal and the French Open. If anything, Nadal is both Foreman and Ali in this analogy. No, the reason I mention the recollection of Foreman is because when I watch people playing Nadal at Roland Garros, all I can think of is Nadal whispering into their ear: “That all you got?”. We have seen Djokovic and Federer give their all against Nadal on the terre battue in Paris and every single time they have come up short. Sure, you might be the current world number one or arguably the greatest player of all time, but is that all you got? Incredible, preternatural and tenacious. But simply not enough.
And this year, Nadal is going for his unprecedented tenth title in Paris. He played 67 times on the red dirt at Roland Garros and has lost once. Now, if you want to beat Nadal, you need to beat an aura of near complete invincibility. One does not simply beat Nadal at the French Open. You will play your best and he will still be there waiting for another ball. Then he’ll compliment your performance in his post match interview and say he was happy with his performance in his thick Mallorcan accent. That’s how things work at Roland Garros. Or at least that’s how it’s worked for the past nine years. Are there any reasons to suspect a change to this now entrenched routine of Nadal raising the Coupe des Mousquetaires on the final Sunday?
The truth be told I thought that 2014 was going to be the year Djokovic finally prevailed against Nadal. Well I was wrong and I bet that loss left a bad taste in Novak’s mouth. He had a pretty ideal run up (beating Nadal in Rome) and came to Paris with a lot of confidence. Then he lost to Nadal four sets with no obvious excuse. For the first time since 2011, we had to ask whether Novak had the self-belief. But things are shaping up quite different this year.
In Rio de Janeiro this February Nadal lost to the mercurial Fabio Fognini in the semi-finals. Nadal has not lost at the semi-final stage of any clay court tournament in twelve years. Nadal lost again to the Italian in Barcelona at the end of April. He also lost to Djokovic in Monte Carlo and to Wawrinka in Rome. Both in straight sets no less. For the first time in a decade, Rafa is not the favourite to win Roland Garros. The aura of invincibility is undeniable fading.
Nadal’s quest to attain an unprecedented tenth title is further compounded by a certain Serbian. Right now, Novak has an almost complete command of his talents and an even more iron-clad belief in himself. He has declared a couple of time recently that he is at the peak of his game. Quite a formidable prospect for anyone on the court. And it’s hard to disagree with his assessment based on his performance this year. He has won four of the five tournaments in 2015 and is riding a 22-match winning streak. His only major loss this year was at the hand of Federer in Dubai.
And so for the first time in a long time, I am excited and uncertain about the final week at Roland Garros. It will either be a revolution or a staggering reaffirmation of the greatest clay courter of all time.
UPDATE: This article was written in June 2015. Sure enough, there was a near king at Roland Garros but it was Stanislas Wawrinka and not Novak Djokovic.