What is Rafael Nadal’s greatest Grand Slam victory? The answers generally range from Wimbledon 2008 to Australian Open 2009 or perhaps even US Open 2019. With his phenomenal record at French Open, it’s easy to ignore the largely lopsided wins when it comes to greatness. But any perception that ease of operation makes the achievement any less extraordinary should change after 2020.
Nadal had won 99 matches at Roland Garros, before Sunday’s final, with just two defeats since his debut in 2005. Logically, he should have been the favourite. But he wasn’t, because of the player he was up against.
Novak Djokovic had not lost a completed match in 2020 and is one of only two men to beat Nadal at French Open. He was in peak form having won the Rome Masters, seemed more match fit and playing in conditions better suited to his game.
This was their 56th match and was expected to be a tough, tooth-and-nail battle. A record-equaling 20th Major or a possibly even more historic second French Open was on the line in one of the most statistically significant matches in men’s tennis. This was not going to be an easy win for either player was the general consensus.
But in the end, like he has for 12 times before and for the fourth year straight, Nadal cruised to a commanding 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 victory. Astonishingly, his 13th title and his 100th win would come after a straight-sets final against the world No 1 and his biggest rival. More importantly, a seemingly routine win on paper turned out to be Nadal’s greatest triumph in a tournament where he has redefined greatness.
Why the simple win in 2020 is his strongest yet
Nadal had played just 19 matches in the pandemic-interrupted 2020 season before the French Open. There have been years when he played that many matches just on clay before his favouite Slam. He has never come to Paris without at least one clay-court title before.
Then again, he has never come to Paris in September either. But 2020 is a different season, an unprecedented year and many things just don’t make sense.
But even in the most unpredictable of years with an autumnal French Open under a new roof, the Spaniard’s unreal propensity on Parisian clay remains unchanged. When it comes to Roland Garros, Nadal, not change, is the only constant.
He won without dropping a set, but he has done that thrice before. He beat his toughest rival in the final but he has done that twice before. He won the title he first won as a teenager in his 30s, but he has done that thrice before too.
Everything seemed to be the same when Nadal was on the court he has made his kingdom. But nothing was, except perhaps the two men; the season, weather, court structure, crowd presence and even the tennis balls were different from the 12 times the Spaniard lifted the Coupe des Mousquetaires before.
If one were to only list his biggest roadblocks the last fortnight, it would read like presumptive litany of reasons his performance this year would or should be excused.
The 34-year-old didn’t pick a racquet for months and played just three matches before his title defence. He complained about the change in the official ball brand saying the heavier versions were physically dangerous. He lost his first-ever match to Diego Schwartzman in the quarter-final at Rome. He looked exhausted in his semi-final win against the same opponent, coming close to dropping a set. He was up against his toughest rival who has dominated their rivalry of late.
But once the final began, it was the metaphoric spring in Paris again. The roof was closed due to rain and the conditions were expected to be slow. But the speed of the ball didn’t matter as Nadal raced to chase the dropshot – neutralising Djokovic’s tournament strategy from the very first game – or slid to make a stunning return at the net finding impossible angles.
A 45-minute set won 6-0 seems incongruent and coming against world No 1 Djokovic, it sounds an erroneous statement. How could the Serb not have won a single game if he stayed in the point for that long? Because the cheat code version of Nadal, seen in the early round, turned up in the final as well this time. Not one to shy away from the grind, he played at such a high level he didn’t need to change gears.
Nadal made just 14 unforced errors to Djokovic’s 52. In his opponent’s words: He played a perfect match. The Serb admitted he thought the conditions would suit him better, but the Spaniard simply took the external factors out of the equation with a clean, clever and controlled game from the start. The Serb often missed out by small margins but the very court seemed to shrink when Nadal was operating, from linejudge to baseline to net.
Sure, the nerves often made an appearance but he pushed them back with the command of his down-the-line forehand. Anything in his range was smacked back, anything on a stretch was scrambled back but everything was sent back. When he was broken for the first and only time in the third set, Djokovic let out a full-blooded roar that usually preempts a turnaround. That was the only game where he let up and the world No 1 would soon revert to a feeling he does not often experience on court: helplessness. Even the might of Djokovic in 2020 couldn’t take Nadal to a fifth set in a French Open final.
In fact, Nadal has been taken to a fifth set at Roland Garros just twice in 15 years – in 2011 by John Isner and by Djokovic in the crunch 2013 semi-final. The Spaniard called his gritty 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7(3), 9-7 (in four hours and 37 minutes) his favourite match on Terre battue.
Ask him again and maybe the answer might not change; that injury-clouded season was a crucial win. But ask what is Nadal’s greatest Roland Garros win and the answer will most likely be the 2020 final. An unexpected margin of victory in an unlikely season in a final where he was almost an underdog. The cold comfort of a routine win in the unpredictable year aside, it was also a sensational display of clay-court tennis against a player second only to Nadal on the surface in current times.
Nadal knows the lines on Court Phillipe Chatrier like the back of his own hands, intertwined as they are with the symbolic lines on his palm. But as elegant as the odes to his accomplishment are, the grit underneath should not be unseen.
He is already the undisputed champion here but the pressure to maintain the standard every single year is as intense as the player’s focus in the matches. For a player with the frequent and debilitating injury issues Nadal has had, 13 Grans Slams would have been tough to imagine at a time. Yet he has managed to somehow exceed expectations for 15 years now and has 20 Majors. As Roger Federer, who is no longer the sole leader in men’s Grand Slams said, it is “one of the greatest achievements in sport.”
But for Nadal at French Open, even the greatest feels commonplace by now. Like a straight sets victory over the best current player.
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