Nadal's historical quest to stay ahead of Djokovic and surpass Federer

Nadal's historical quest to stay ahead of Djokovic and surpass Federer

By winning his 13th Roland Garros trophy, the Spaniard has repositioned the major-title race, strengthening his own chances to eventually stand alone at the top, forcing Djokovic to make up more ground.

When Rafael Nadal was beaten in a heartbreaking five-set final by an inspired Roger Federer at the 2017 Australian Open, the defeat seemed to potentially be a crushing blow to the Spaniard’s chances of catching up to the Swiss in their historical quest for the most men’s major singles titles. Nadal was ahead of his redoubtable rival 3-1 in the fifth set of that critical clash in Melbourne, but never won another game. The spectacular comeback gave Federer 18 Grand Slam titles and left Nadal tied with Pete Sampras at 14. That appeared to be a very steep climb for the left- handed wizard.

But Nadal was never consumed with long-term goals. The inimitable southpaw stuck with the competitive recipe that had always served him exceedingly well. His template was to take it one point, one match, one tournament at a time. Nadal’s masterplan has been to face each challenge as forthrightly as possible, meet every crucial moment head on, and reflect on where he stood periodically without ever getting too far ahead of himself.

Now at long last he has indeed put himself on level terrain with Federer. By startlingly upending Novak Djokovic 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 in the final of Roland Garros, Nadal not only secured an astonishing 13th Roland Garros crown but also collected a 20th major title to tie Federer. In the process, he denied Djokovic an 18th Grand Slam title that would have put the Serbian within striking distance of both the Swiss and the Spaniard. The ramifications of Nadal’s victory over Djokovic in Paris are very similar to his 2017 setback Down Under against Federer. Now it is Djokovic who must leave a consequential loss behind him, move forward with sheer persistence, and look to find more opportunities to claim the premier prizes.

Nadal, of course, has put himself in an enviable historical position. His decision to not defend his 2019 US Open title gave him more time to not only prepare on clay for the French Open, but to keep his mind fresh and his body injury-free. He had been gone from the game for six months when he went to Rome for the Italian Open, and not even a quarterfinal loss to Diego Schwartzman could diminish his deep inner belief about winning again in Paris.


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For the fourth time in his sterling career, Nadal was victorious at Roland Garros without losing a set over the fortnight, setting a men’s record in the process. He was then asked about standing on the same numerical platform as Federer.

“I never hide for me, I always say the same—that I would love to finish my career being the player with the most Grand Slams,” he said. “No doubt about that, no? But on the other hand, I say, okay, I have to do it my way. I did my way during all my career. [It has] worked well.

“I’m not going to be thinking all the time that Novak have this one, Roger is winning the other one. You can’t be always unhappy because your neighbor have a bigger house than you or a bigger boat or have a better phone. You have to live your personal life, no? Personally that’s the thing I did during all my career, try my best every single day. In terms of these records, of course that I care [about]. I am a big fan of sport in general. I respect a lot that.”

Nadal clearly made those remarks with total sincerity. He is a supremely humble man and did not assume he would inevitably be sharing that top rung of the major-tournament ladder with Federer. But now that he is there, the Spaniard will not fall into complacency and settle for his current status; he will make an all-out effort to stay safely ahead of Djokovic and to move past Federer into sole possession of first place at the majors.

So how does he manage his motivations? Where does he go from here? Nadal said after his triumph in Paris that he is not sure about his plans for the rest of the year.

“I can’t tell you if I’m going to keep playing or not keep playing for the next couple of months,” he said. “I am not sure if I am going to keep going on the normal calendar or if I stop playing until next year. It is something that I have to decide.”

 

My guess is he will elect to not compete for the remainder of 2020. The indoor tournaments are not particularly to his liking. He has never won the ATP Finals. Taking that season-ending crown in a setting that does not suit him well would be an honor he would cherish.

The primary reason for playing the Rolex Paris Masters and the ATP Finals would be to finish the year at No. 1 in the world. Federer, Djokovic and Nadal have all concluded five seasons across their careers atop the rankings. Nadal would surely take pride in realizing that feat for the sixth time. And yet, he is 1,890 points behind Djokovic in the ATP Rankings this week. It is highly unlikely that Nadal can stop Djokovic from closing the 2020 campaign at No. 1.

Nadal will probably decide he does not want to compete any more this year. He could train at home in Spain and make winning a second Australian Open title his chief priority. The last man to take all four majors at least twice was Rod Laver, who hit that milestone in 1969. The only other man to do it was Roy Emerson earlier in the ‘60s. Djokovic, of course, was deprived of that accolade by Nadal when he lost their latest battle on the Parisian clay.

Nadal’s record at the majors is nothing less than stupendous. In addition to his 13 Roland Garros titles, he has triumphed at the US Open four times and has come through twice at Wimbledon. That is why a second Australian Open championship run would matter so much to Nadal and his most ardent boosters. It would balance the scales away from clay and add considerable luster to his record. It would set him apart once more from his peers.

Since taking his lone title at Melbourne 11 years ago, Nadal has been back to four more finals but has lost to Djokovic (twice), Federer and Stan Wawrinka. The Australian Open has been a hard-luck place for the Spaniard, but the fact remains that he has played a stellar brand of tennis at that tournament through the years. He wants to make certain to give himself the best possible chance to succeed in January.


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Nadal, in spite of a very taxing style of play, has surprised himself and many others with his longevity. He will be 35 in June, and the feeling grows that he will play at a very high level for at least a couple more years. His performance against Djokovic in Paris was right up there among the best big-match performances he has ever given; in my view it far surpassed his 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 final-round triumph over Federer at the clay-court major in 2008. His remarkably sound execution off the ground, outstanding defense and uncanny tactical acuity were fully on display.

The view here is that Nadal will win at least one more Roland Garros and quite possibly one of the other majors as well. I doubt that Federer will win another Grand Slam title, although he will be dangerous as always at Wimbledon next year. As for Djokovic, I expect him to win four or five more majors across the next three years; he is the best hard-court and grass-court player in the world. He remains as deeply driven as Nadal.

It is entirely possible and even likely that both Nadal and Djokovic will surpass Federer in this riveting major-title chase. When all is said and done, it will be a very close call between Nadal and Djokovic, and it would not surprise me in the least if these two  towering champions finished in a tie with 22 Grand Slam titles each.

But this much is certain: by masterfully capturing another major title on his favorite court in the world, Nadal has repositioned the race, strengthening his own chances to eventually stand alone at the top, forcing Djokovic to make up more ground, and reminding everyone that he is a sports figure unlike any other in this era.