Twenty Grand Slam titles, 100-2 at Roland Garros, 13 French Open titles—that’s just the tip of the statistical iceberg when it comes to Rafael Nadal’s longevity and dominance, especially on clay. Maybe most mind-blowing to me today is that this was the fourth time he has won Roland Garros with no sets lost. Borg won six titles total in Paris; could Rafa end winning that many, or more, without dropping a set?
At the end, NBC’s Dan Hicks described the win over Novak Djokovic as “business as usual,” for Nadal, and in some ways it was. Even the world No. 1 couldn’t threaten him for more than a game or two. But there are at least a couple of things that still managed to amaze me about Nadal’s performance on Sunday.
(1) How he can so reliably peak for the final weekend at Roland Garros
How many times have we seen Rafa lose to someone in one of the lead-up tournaments on clay, then face that player in the semifinals or final in Paris, and turn the tables around completely, leaving other guy in the dust? The last few years that unlucky opponent was Dominic Thiem; this year it was Diego Schwartzman. We talk about champions raising their game when it matters, but it’s uncanny how Rafa does it on the same court, in the same rounds, when he has to have his best, year after year.
(2) How he can play through his nerves
When Nadal broke for 3-2 in the third set, I thought, “Either he’s going to get nervous here, up two sets and a break, or he’s never going to get nervous.” And he did get tight: For the first time in the match, he made three routine errors and was broken. But like he has so many other times, Nadal settled back down, made sure he held serve, and stopped the mistakes again. As a fellow player and longtime tennis watcher, Joel, I’m sure you understand what a Herculean mental task that can be, to get nervous and then overcome those nerves almost right away. This 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 match will go down as a blowout, but tennis is never that easy or simple; it’s just that Nadal makes it look that way on clay.
What struck you about the match today, Joel?
Of Nadal’s 13 wins in the finals of Roland Garros, this was by far his greatest effort. I say this because Nadal knew he was going to have to extend himself further than usual on the clay. In recent Nadal-Djokovic matches, Djokovic has been able to dictate the tempo and flow of many rallies, often by drilling his backhand wide to the Nadal forehand, reacting to the crosscourt and then hammering another backhand down the line. Never was this more vivid than in the 2019 Australian Open final, when Djokovic was in charge from start to finish.
Court positioning, fueled by Nadal’s unsurpassed ferocity, was the key to today’s win. Think of tennis as a form of real-estate conservation, a zero-sum tug of war not just with egos and the ball but also with space and its companion, time. Right from the start, that is what Nadal did: aggressively pursue ways to take away Novak’s remarkable skill at commanding the court.
Nadal sought to take the ball early, be it with his natural crosscourt forehand, as well as with the inside-out-forehand. Nadal also quickly tracked down Djokovic’s drop shots and threw up a number of lobs when Djokovic came forward. In more crude terms, Nadal swiftly clogged many of Djokovic’s preferred lanes.
Familiar as Djokovic is with Nadal’s brilliance, he was clearly jolted by this early swarm and rapidly found himself unable to dictate the way he usually does. This in turn triggered Djokovic attempting to hit the ball bigger. No wonder he made 52 unforced errors (to a scant 14 for Nadal).
And yet, even then, when Nadal lost that break in the third set, I thought there was a reasonable chance Djokovic could take it into a fourth. That surprised me.
But then again, so did the entire match—not necessarily how it ended, but how it happened. If Hicks was right to call the outcome “business as usual,” the process was very much a case of business as unusual. As he has for so long, Nadal proved why there’s no other tennis player you’d want to play for the fate of the planet.
Steve, do you think there was anything Djokovic could have done to alter the flow of this match?
Business as unusual—I think that’s the upside of having a rivalry that goes on for so long. I’ve never been bored by Nadal vs. Djokovic, because they’re always making adjustments to each other, and then adjustments to those adjustments; nothing stays the same between them. Today, there was a lot of talk before the match about the importance of Djokovic’s backhand, and his ability to create patterns where he could finish points with it against Rafa. But right out of the gate, Nadal seemed determined to negate that advantage by making his own backhand a weapon.
Could Djokovic have altered the flow? I think he tried what he could today, but it wasn’t in the cards. Nadal was too locked in during the first two sets, mixing offense and defense perfectly. And when Djokovic started to make some inroads in the third set, Nadal forced him to hit so many great shots just to win a point that it was inevitable that he would eventually miss. Djokovic’s first serve wasn’t good early, and that hurt him. And like you said, he made a lot of errors, and that obviously hurt him too. But this was Nadal on clay.
Remember at the start of the tournament, when there was so much speculation that the cold conditions and heavy new balls would make life harder for Rafa? We can laugh about those comments now. In the end, the slowed-down game in Chatrier seemed to suit him perfectly. When Djokovic went for his big crosscourt backhand, Nadal easily slid to his left to track it down. I think the takeaway today is that all conditions are good conditions for Nadal at Roland Garros.
I liked seeing the Big Three generation do its thing again, after being mostly absent at the US Open, and in 2020. There was the great play, and the sporting words afterward—Roger Federer got in on the action, too, with a nice congratulatory tweet to Rafa. And I liked the way Nadal, even in the midst of this milestone moment for his career, was able to acknowledge the pandemic in a sober and even comforting way. These guys are still the future of men’s tennis, for the time being, and I’m good with that.
Joel, any thoughts on what this match and tournament means going forward for the men?
Memo to US Open finalists Thiem and Alexander Zverev: Not just yet, boys. Ditto for you, Stefanos Tsitsipas, with a tip of the hat to such warriors as Schwartzman and Pablo Carreno Busta. All wonderful players—and yet, too old for Next Gen, but not old enough for Great Gen.
So we view 2020, a year gutted by the pandemic and uncertainty. But, bookend to bookend, it was Novak in charge Down Under, Rafa at Roland Garros. Call the US Open an engaging but incomplete middle act, strongly flavored by the planned absence of one titan and the accidental exit of another.
Going forward, it’s now time for one big breath and then a rigorous planning cycle. What a year: the last major, completed a month later than usual, amid a still-ongoing global crisis. So how now do players simultaneously compete at the year’s remaining events and get ready for Australia? I suspect the likes of Djokovic and Nadal will shortly be huddling with their teams to figure out the timing of the Australian quarantine and then work backwards to plan downtime, training blocks, travel, practice, tournaments—and that even includes what’s to come this fall.
Yesterday, we spoke about the many playing styles and personalities in women’s tennis and how exciting that is. In a different way, I’m also excited about what’s going on in men’s tennis. What we saw in Paris was hardly the routine dominance of familiar champions. We saw the great Nadal reinvent himself to take down his toughest rival. In other words, a 34-year-old who has been competing as a pro for nearly 20 years continues to pursue improvement. And that in turn ups the ante for anyone who wants to capture his share of glory. So in that sense, Roland Garros 2020—capped by Nadal’s brilliance—was an incredibly motivational message for the entire sport.