For an agonizing split second, Rafael Nadal was frozen, waiting to see if the heavy slice serve he just launched toward Novak Djokovic would be called an ace or an out ball. The silence confirmed it. Nadal sank to his knees, his grin growing to the point where it looked like he was laughing as he knelt in the red dirt, pumping his arms in celebration.
Nadal had numerous reasons to react so gleefully. He had just boosted his other-worldly record in French Open finals to 13-0 and tied Roger Federer‘s all-time record with his 20th Grand Slam men’s singles title. Among other things, the 34-year-old “King of Clay” also became the the first Open-era player to win four Grand Slam singles titles without losing a single set, and the first player of that 50-plus year period to win six major titles since turning 30 years old.
Trying to understand how he’s accomplished all this can strain the mind, and focusing on his fitness, his lefty juju, or the RPMs he generates with that ferocious forehand isn’t the best place to start. Instead, turn to the first words Nadal spoke after deconstructing Djokovic, who carried a 37-1 record for 2020 into the match but succumbed to Nadal in a two-hour, 41-minute blowout, 6-0, 6-2, 7-5.
“First of all congrats to Novak for another great tournament,” Nadal told an audience limited due to the coronavirus pandemic to 1,000 spectators. The record Nadal now shares with Federer seemed far from his mind as he continued with a reference to the last time he and Djokovic squared up in the 2019 Australian Open final. “Sorry for today, you know. But in Australian [Open] he killed me a couple of times ago. Today was for me. That’s part of the game.”
Nadal wasn’t gloating, he isn’t the vengeful type. But getting “killed” in the final in Melbourne in 2019 shook him deeply.
At the time, Nadal was coming off yet another lengthy (five-month) break due to injury. He advanced to the final without losing a set, but Djokovic played at a different level, handing Nadal his first straight-sets loss in a Grand Slam championship match. Nadal did not know what his future held.
Djokovic allowed Nadal just eight games in that wipe out in Oz. Nadal yielded one fewer on Sunday but said he wasn’t counting.
“I am not a big fan of revenges, no? I just accept when the things are not going the way that I like,” Nadal said in his post-match press conference. “Today was a little bit the opposite, especially for two sets and a half. But I really don’t care much. On the other hand, to win against Novak with that score is because I did a lot of things very well.”
Nadal was forced to endure a lot of stress and doubt on the way to finding his mental comfort and “A” game again. As 2019 went on, Nadal found himself struggling, unable to break through to a final for three months.
“Mentally I was not enjoying [tennis],” he later said of that period. “[I was] too much worried about [my] health and, being honest, too negative.”
After taking a semifinal loss to Dominic Thiem in late April in Barcelona, Nadal locked himself into his hotel room to decide if he should step away from the game for some time to re-discover his enthusiasm or “change drastically” his attitude.
Nadal chose that latter option and went 35-2 in matches until the final regular-season tournament of 2019, with wins at the French and US Opens. Djokovic wasn’t resting on his laurels either. He won another Wimbledon title and finished the year 57-11 with two major titles just like Nadal.
Thiem crushed any hopes of a rematch of the 2019 Australian Open final this year by eliminating Nadal. Further hopes of reigniting the rivalry Djokovic now leads by the slim margin of 29-27 were soon doused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Nadal spent a fair amount of time during the lockdown helping to raise millions of dollars to assist compatriots infected by COVID-19. He repeatedly reminded anyone who asked that the pandemic ought to be a more critical point of focus than pro sports. He reiterated his message on Sunday when even his epic achievement could not put the pandemic out of his mind. He told the crowd:
“I want to send a message to everyone around the world. We are facing one of the worst moments that we remember in this world, facing and fighting against this virus. Just keep going, stay positive and together we will go through this, and we will win the virus soon.”
Nadal’s activities and concerns during the pandemic, including his disinterest in playing tournaments without spectators, led him to take a hard pass on the “double-in-the-bubble” tournaments culminating with the US Open in New York. He played just three matches in preparation for Roland Garros, taking an unexpected quarterfinal loss in the Italian Open to Diego Schwartzman.
Djokovic, by contrast, was among the more active players during the pandemic. Although his exhibition Adria Tour turned into a disaster with some players, including Djokovic and his wife, testing positive for the coronavirus, the Serbian national hero resumed play in grand style. His only loss in three tournaments leading to the French Open was an unexpected default in the fourth round of the US Open.
Many pundits argued that the chilly autumnal conditions and a change to balls that absorbed more moisture and clay than the ones used in previous years — a development criticized by many including Nadal — tilted the French Open playing field in Djokovic’s favor.
“I was also thinking that these conditions are more favorable to me,” Djokovic admitted in his post-match press conference. “I was feeling great throughout the tournament, playing great tennis, winning in Rome, being very confident about my game. But yeah, Rafa has proven everybody wrong. He just played a fantastic match today.”
The keys for Nadal were relatively simple. As ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said the other day, “I don’t care about the conditions, Rafael Nadal is the best clay-court player in the world.”
Nadal played this final with his signature ferocity. If his forehand did not bounce as high as it would have under typically sunny, warm conditions in Paris, it had enough bite and snap to force Djokovic into playing desperate defense.
The drop shots that Djokovic had used so successfully in his earlier matches? Trying them appeared to disrupt the rhythm that he likes in rallies more than they bothered Nadal. The all-or-nothing nature of the drop-shot ploy backfired a number of times on Djokovic until it began to look like his attempts were less an offensive tactic than a way to bail out of rallies he knew he could not win.
Nadal made just 14 unforced errors to Djokovic’s 52. Although Djokovic posted a solid first-serve conversion rate (he put 67% in the box), Nadal returned so well that Djokovic was able to win just 50% of his first-serve points. He did almost as well winning second-serve points.
That Djokovic hit more outright winners than Nadal (38-31) suggests that the only way Djokovic was going to win points in this one was by going for broke.
“He [Nadal] did surprise me with the way he was playing, the quality of tennis he was producing,” Djokovic said. “I mean, he’s phenomenal. He played a perfect match, especially in the first two sets. He was the far better player on the court today.”
True to form, Nadal downplayed the outstanding historical detail of his win, the fact that he and Federer, friends and rivals, now have more Grand Slam titles than anyone who has ever played the game. Djokovic, with 17 majors, might yet join or surpass them, but nobody else is on the horizon.
Nadal denied that he was indifferent to the major title record, reiterating that he would love to finish his career with the most Grand Slam titles. But he added, “I did [it] my way during all my career. Worked well. 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 neighbor [has] a bigger house than you or a bigger boat or [has] a better phone. You have to live your personal life, no?”
For Nadal, that means not letting anything overshadow the special relationship he has with the city of Paris and the Court Philippe-Chatrier.
“To win here means everything to me,” he told the spectators just minutes after the final. “It is not the moment, honestly, to think today about the 20 [majors] and equaling Roger’s great number. For me, today is just a Roland Garros story. The love story I have with this city and this court is unforgettable.”
Nadal will surely remember details about this unique and historic October Sunday final at Roland Garros. Djokovic likely will try to forget most of it.
“He keeps going,” Djokovic said. “No holding him back it seems like. It’s amazing. All the superlatives you can use, he deserves them.”