PARIS — The Rafael Nadal on the court late Sunday afternoon at Roland Garros seemed more like an impostor, so unlike Nadal, on his favorite surface, at his favorite tournament, getting bullied around on clay. The snarl was still there, the face all twisted and contorted; however, it came not from the usual dominance but from anger over circumstance.
After all these years and six French Open championships for Nadal, the answer of how to slow him, how to make him look hapless on clay, finally arrived. It resulted from a combination of poor weather, a rejuvenated Novak Djokovic and Nadal's palpable frustration.
The more it rained, the more Nadal sprayed ground strokes, the more he stomped around the baseline. He complained often and loudly to the chair umpire. He threw temper tantrums. In the simplest terms, he came apart.
Fortunately for Nadal, weather and darkness conspired to cause the match to be suspended, if not as early as he wanted. Play was scheduled to resume this morning, though the weather forecast looked ominous again.
Djokovic, who lost the first two sets handily, 4-6 and 3-6, and threw two temper tantrums of his own, contributed mightily to Nadal's breakdown. Djokovic seemed to draw strength from the rain, from the odds against him and from the chance to win his fourth consecutive major championship and a career Grand Slam.
Down 2-0 in the third set, he won six straight games, mouth agape, fists pumping, then took the first two games to begin the fourth. Djokovic captured a compelling 44-shot rally. Nadal shook his head. Nadal missed a backhand wide. He shook his head again.
What once seemed so certain Sunday — Nadal's record seventh French Open championship — appeared in serious jeopardy. Nadal did scratch out a service game and trailed 2-1 in the fourth.
Out again came Stefan Fransson, the tournament referee. Nadal let him have it, the verbal equivalent of an emphatic service ace. Fransson started to walk away. Nadal stood and yelled again. "Now we can stop, after one set we cannot move the ball?" Nadal said, as picked up by the television cameras. "Because the balls did the same one hour ago."
After the one-sided, testy exchange, the tarp went back onto the court, the players went downstairs into the locker rooms, and perhaps three hours of daylight remained for the optimistic. As Fransson made his way down a staircase, Toni Nadal, uncle and coach of Rafael, swore at Fransson in Spanish and waved his hand dismissively.
The rain continued as officials announced they would attempt to play again Sunday, which fell closer to delusional than hopeful.
With history at stake, either the career Grand Slam for Djokovic or the Roland Garros record for Nadal, the pressure — and the players' reactions to it — seemed natural.
Djokovic entered Sunday having won 27 straight matches in Grand Slam tournaments, including three finals against Nadal. Yet Djokovic was not supposed to win at Roland Garros, not by a long shot. Roger Federer, who lost to Djokovic in the semifinals, called Nadal an "overwhelming favorite."
Nadal entered Sunday with a 51-1 record in this tournament. For two weeks at this French Open, Nadal buried opponents in topspin, battered them into submission, banished them in straight sets. He made some of the best players in the world look confused, angry and dismayed. The back of his shoes read "6," a reference to his championships, tied with Bjorn Borg for most in the tournament.
Sure, Djokovic stood on the brink of something — winner of four majors in a row — that had not been done in 43 years. But Federer had won three straight Slam events, too, in 2006 and 2007. Guess who ended his chances for a fourth? Nadal, at the French Open.