PARIS – For the first two sets, Rafael Nadal looked like the King of the Clay, alternately bullying Novak Djokovic, then frustrating him, as Djokovic tried to solve the nearly unsolvable riddle of Nadal at Roland Garros.
The longer a steady drizzle soaked the court, however, the better Djokovic looked — and in addition to becoming the first man to win four straight major titles in 43 years, it seemed as if he might be the first to win on a new Grand Slam surface: red mud.
Not to be.
Officials stepped in and halted play at Sunday's waterlogged French Open final with Nadal, in search of his record seventh Roland Garros title, clinging to a 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 1-2 lead. If the weather cooperates, the final act will be Monday, with Djokovic serving the same tennis balls that Nadal was complaining were too saturated in the minutes before play was halted.
One of these men will make history, but regardless, this final already has: It will be the first French Open not to end on Sunday since 1973, when Ilie Nastase wrapped up his title on a Tuesday.
Answering most of the questions after play stopped were the Roland Garros tournament director and referee, who stuck by a 3 p.m. starting time — missing out on hours of dry weather earlier in the day — then, in some eyes, let play go on too long, as the red clay got saturated and slabs of caked clay chunked up on the court and adhered to the grooves in the players' shoes.
Toni Nadal, Rafael's uncle and coach, said he thought action should have been suspended earlier, "because the court was too wet."
Tournament referee Stefan Fransson justified his decision to keep playing, while tournament director Gilbert Ysern defended the choice — made with TV considerations very much in mind — to stick with the starting time.
"You can't say that everybody knew for sure at what time it was going to rain today," Ysern said. "I did not know, and if anybody is able to tell (me) for sure at what time it's going to rain the next day, I'm willing to hire him."
This handwringing put a damper on one of the most important and anticipated finals in some time: Nadal trying to pass Bjorn Borg as the all-time record-holder for French Open titles, and Djokovic trying to become the first player since Rod Laver to win four straight Grand Slam tournaments.
Until Nadal held serve to pull within 2-1 in the fourth set, he had lost a mindboggling eight straight games to Djokovic, who had looked every bit as helpless at the start of the match, when the courts were still dry and Nadal was sliding into shots, hitting his heavy topspin without a problem.
Looking helplessly up at his guest box, Djokovic alternated between Plan A: Try to stand in and slug it out with Nadal, and Plan B: Go big and try to end points early. Neither worked and he finally found Plan C: Play better.
But before that, the frustration spilled over. He spiked one racket to the ground — a move that brought boos and whistles. Then, after losing serve to fall behind 4-3 in the second set, he bashed another stick into his bench, putting a big hole in the bottom and sending a ballkid out to the middle of the court to pick up the debris.
Shortly after that, a rain delay of about 35 minutes ensued. Tournament officials replaced the bench. Djokovic came out with clean socks and what seemed like a new attitude. After dropping three quick games, he ran off eight straight, including the first set he's ever won off Nadal at Roland Garros and the first Nadal has dropped during the 2012 tournament.
After play was halted for the second time, Nadal "focused," according to Uncle Toni — not getting wrapped up in the Spain-Italy soccer match that was playing on TVs around the grounds.
After the Nadals left the grounds for the day, Djokovic followed, pausing to chat with Los Angeles Lakers forward Pau Gasol in the players' lounge.
If the weather cooperates — the forecast is for intermittent rain — and they finish Monday, it won't be the first time: It happened at the last two U.S. Opens, where the final has been postponed every year since 2008. And, of course, it happened earlier this year at the Australian Open, where they played 5 hours, 53 minutes and wrapped it up at 1:37 a.m. Monday in Melbourne.