Nadal proves doubters wrong to romp to record-tying 20th Grand Slam title
PARIS－All the years of work, all the many wins, led to this moment, with Rafa Nadal preparing to serve against Novak Djokovic, one point from a 13th French Open championship, one point from a 20th Grand Slam trophy to tie Roger Federer’s record for men.
Nadal swept his right foot along the baseline, clearing away the red dust as he has so many times before. He rapped his shoes’ soles with his racket－right, then left, then right again. He discarded one tennis ball behind him, another in the pocket of his blue shorts.
And then, finally ready to proceed, Nadal delivered an ace at 106 mph (171 kph) to cap a flawless performance and a surprisingly lopsided 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 victory over the No 1-ranked Djokovic. Nadal dropped to his knees, smiling broadly, and pumped his arms.
Neither Djokovic, on this day, nor Federer, over the course of time, ever truly stood a chance of resisting the relentless Nadal, aka the ‘King of Clay’.
“He keeps going. No holding him back, it seems like. It’s amazing. I mean, I admire all his achievements, especially the one here,” said Djokovic, who had won his last five Grand Slam finals.
“There’s not much you can say,” Djokovic said. “All the superlatives that you can use, he deserves them.”
It’s the fourth time the No 2-ranked Nadal won his favorite tournament without ceding a set and made his career mark at the French Open 100-2. No, that is not a typo.
The 34-year-old left-hander from Spain has won his favorite event four straight times, following previous streaks of four from 2005-08, then five from 2010-14. Those go alongside four triumphs at the US Open, two at Wimbledon and one at the Australian Open.
Nadal made clear that while he never has been consumed with the idea of catching Federer, he can appreciate the accomplishment’s significance.
“I would love to finish my career being the player with more Grand Slams. No doubt about that, no? But on the other hand, I say, ‘OK, I have to do (it) my way…. I’m not going to be thinking all the time, ‘Novak (has) this one, Roger is winning the other one.’ You can’t be always unhappy because your neighbors have a bigger house than you or a bigger boat or have a better phone,” Nadal said.
“In terms of these records, of course I care. I am a big fan of the history of sport, in general. I respect, a lot (of) that,” he continued. “For me, (it) means a lot to share this number with Roger, no?”
Federer, 39, sat out the US Open and French Open after two knee operations. He posted a congratulatory message on Instagram on Sunday.
“As my greatest rival over many years, I believe we have pushed each other to become better players,” Federer wrote, and ended with: “I hope 20 is just another step on the continuing journey for both of us. Well done, Rafa. You deserve it.”
Djokovic’s loss, meanwhile, left him at 17 majors; had he won, the standings would have read 20-19-18.No other man has more than 14.
This was the 56th installment of Nadal vs. Djokovic, the most between men in the professional era. Djokovic is ahead 29-27 now, including his 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 win at the 2019 Australian Open final.
“In Australia, he killed me. …Today was for me,” Nadal said.
The key statistic Sunday: Nadal limited himself to 14 unforced errors, impressive against anyone, but especially someone of Djokovic’s caliber, who accumulated 52.
“He’s phenomenal,” Djokovic said. “He played a perfect match, especially in the first two sets.”
The first set was a 45-minute masterclass conducted by Nadal, who came out incredibly crisply and cleanly, steering his heavy top-spun forehands precisely where he wanted them and using his defense-to-offense abilities to slide and stretch and flick balls back with aggression.
“I played at my highest level when I needed to play at my highest level,” Nadal said.
Appearing resigned, Djokovic was less volatile than he often is when he struggles－such as the whack of a ball that inadvertently hit a line judge at the US Open last month, earning a disqualification, his only other loss in 39 matches this season.
Instead, the 33-year-old puffed his cheeks or rolled his eyes, exasperated with himself, perhaps, but also unable to figure out how to counter what came from the other side of the net. After one exchange, he put up his palms, as if to ask, “What can I do here?”
It was only the fourth 6-0 set lost by Djokovic in 341 career Grand Slam matches. As he sat in his sideline seat digesting that shutout, four Djokovic supporters in blue jerseys and white baseball hats stood and sang in the stands, their chorus drowning out the light pitter-patter of drizzle hitting the retractable roof.
The much-anticipated matchup between these two titans of their sport was the first indoor French Open men’s final, contested under Court Philippe Chatrier’s new cover. From its stand in the VIP section, the Coupe des Mousquetaires trophy glistened under the artificial lights.
This also was the first French Open contested with players walking on court wearing masks on account of the coronavirus pandemic, also the reason the tournament shifted from May-June to September-October and crowds were limited to 1,000 per day. On Sunday, those lucky enough to attend were mainly concentrated in not-very-socially distanced dense clumps in the first 20 or so rows.
“Of course, (it’s) an important day for me,” Nadal said afterward, “but I’m not stupid, no? Is still a very sad situation worldwide.”
The seasonal change led to colder, wetter weather than usual, which alters the way the clay affects shots, making them bounce lower and slower. Some, including Nadal, wondered aloud whether that would hinder him, as could the tournament’s change to a slightly heavier ball.
He figured that “this year will probably be too difficult”. So much for that.
He dealt with Djokovic’s predilection for drop shots much better than previous foes of the Serb, using anticipation and speed to dim that strategy’s success. “Didn’t work great today, let’s say,” Djokovic admitted.
Nadal took five of Djokovic’s first six service games and broke seven times in all. The Spaniard faced only five break points himself, saving four.
More than two hours in, when Djokovic employed a backhand winner to get his lone break, making it 3-all in the third set, he let out a couple of roars and waved his arms to ask for more noise from fans.
Too little, too late. Less than a half-hour later, it was over.
“Rafa has proven everybody wrong,” Djokovic said. “That’s why he’s a great champion.”