Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic meeting in the final of French Open 2020 is predictable as well as poetic.
The 2020 tennis season, like the year, has been full of turmoil and change. But the last day of the final Grand Slam of the year will have a match that is both a throwback to men’s tennis at its peak and one of the most important matches for the sport’s history.
The top seed and 2015 champion reached his fifth final while the second-seeded 12-time champion is in his 13th on the red clay of Paris. It will be the 56th meeting between the two, 15 at Grand Slams and eight in finals, but this might just be the most significant in the long run.
On Sunday, world No 1 Djokovic can win an 18th Major and become the first man in half a century to win all four Slams twice – a significant milestone in the Big Three era. World No 2 Nadal can equal Roger Federer’s all-time record men’s of 20 Grand Slam titles with his 13th French Open and 100th win at Roland Garros.
Modern men’s tennis has for so long been defined by the numbers – number of Grand Slam being chief of them – that a lot of the nuance and wonder of the actual individual achievement has been overshadowed. This match then is also a chance to leave the more divisive aspects of the long-standing debate behind and enjoy a moment of extraordinary accomplishment in a topsy-turvy year.
For many sections of the fans, the dominance of a few players at Majors is a cause for concern and even boredom. They want new faces, a fresh rivalry and change. But look deeper and even in yet another Slam final between two of the Big Three, there is something novel.
In ordinary circumstances, one would look at the tournament form guide and the semi-final wins to ascertain the contenders’ chances in the final. Even though there is nothing ordinary about this final, here’s an attempt.
The Spaniard was made to work hard but got past Diego Schwartzman 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (7/0) to make a 13th final at the tournament, without dropping a set in six matches so far. The Serb, on the other hand, faced his toughest test this season on clay as Stefanos Tsitsipas saved a match point in the third set and pushed him to five. The world No 1 responded in style winning the roller-coaster 6-3, 6-2, 5-7, 4-6, 6-1.
Go back a little and the results at the Rome Masters, the only ATP tournament they played on clay, tell a different tale. Djokovic won his record-breaking 36 Masters dropping just one set while Nadal was stunned in the quarter-final by eventual runner-up Schwartzman.
Now, look back a little more and there is another important statistic – Djokovic is one of only two men to have defeated Nadal at Roland Garros in 15 years. Beating Nadal at Roland Garros is almost impossible – he has a mind-bending 99-2 record here – and to actually beat him in a final will a feat of astronomic proportions. Can Djokovic, who has made a habit of achieving impossible for so long, break the most difficult barrier in tennis?
The 33-year-old was quick to tone down the significance of the match: “I don’t think it’s the biggest match that I have ever played in my life… Every French Open final that I played was the match of my life before I actually won it.”
Given Nadal’s unreal dominance of the Parisian clay, winning even one French Open to complete a Career Slam was considered a superlative achievement. Djokovic had stumbled at this roadblock occasions before his 2016 title – twice to Nadal (2012 and 2014) and to Stan Wawrinka after stunning Nadal in 2015. Indeed, he has had some agonizing moments where he has stopped short of a final. In 2011, his 43-match winning streak was halted by Roger Federer in the semi-finals. 2018, he lost a five-set epic in the quarter-final to world number 72 Marco Cecchinato of Italy. Last year he was beaten in the semi-finals by Dominic Thiem in conditions which he likened to playing in a “hurricane” in a match took two days to complete.
But he has come back every single time… just like in Friday’s semi-final where he momentarily lost his rhythm. From dominating the big points in the first set to failing to serve out the match after having match points, it was an unfamiliar situation for the top seed. The fourth set was an anomaly as he suddenly could not take the chance he normally pounces on. But his response was breadstick final set against a 22-year-old who was cramping in the fifth. That is his lofty level, physically and mentally.
Similarly, the 34-year-old was tested by Schwartzman, who had knocked out two-time finalist Thiem and looked set to take a set at least. Already, he has been honest about his physical struggle in the autumnal conditions with the new and widely-criticized heavy balls. The conditions are anything but favourable and it looked like it was finally catching up against the plucky Argentine. But the way he swept the third-set Tiebreak without losing a point was a classic Nadal at French Open trait: he will rise higher every time the challenge gets tougher.
This then is the stage for an extraordinary finale to a Grand Slam where everything is different except the Top 2. Their eight Grand Slam finals so far have been record-breaking and physically intense and this one will be both.
At the end of it we will either have momentous 13 or a possibly more historic second French Open. But before that, we will have a match to showcase, once again, just what a remarkable era we are living in. In a year of worst case scenarios, men’s tennis doesn’t get better than this.