Neither Novak Djokovic nor Roger Federer were able to resist Rafael Nadal on Sunday.
Nadal did an amazingly quick job between them in the French Open final, eliminating Djokovic, the world’s No. 1 player, 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 to equal Federer’s record of 20 singles titles in the Grand Slam.
He was arguably Nadal’s best performance at Roland Garros, which is quite a statement considering he has already won 12 Grand Slam titles on the same red clay rectangle.
There was nothing unfortunate about the number 13. He was on mission and shooting on goal from the start, tearing up two winners with a ground kick, falling off his shots and keeping his easy mistakes to a minimum. He scored only two goals in the opening set and 14 in the match, giving Djokovic little time or space to find his range.
Djokovic, the 2016 French Open champion, is one of only two men to defeat Nadal at Roland Garros. He had defeated Nadal in their last three Grand Slam matches against each other.
The most recent came at the 2019 Australian Open, where Djokovic beat Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 in What Djokovic Still Holds was the best performance of his career. Nadal couldn’t help but close his lips, shake his head and say “Very good”.
But that defeat happened on solid ground, Djokovic’s best stadium, in the major tournament he won most often. Sunday’s response came in the Kingdom of Nadal.
“Sorry for today,” Nadal told Djokovic in his comments after the victory. “He killed me in Australia. Today was clearly for me. This is part of the game. We have played many times together.”
This was not a French championship like any other. It’s been moved from spring to fall due to the coronavirus pandemic, making cooler temperatures make Nadal’s frontal hit less vibrant than it has been in the past. Crowds were limited to 1,000 paid spectators per day at Roland Garros.
It was also the first French championship to be played with a retractable roof and lights, which meant Nadal had to win his quarter-final match over Yannick Senner after midnight. Due to heavy rain on Sunday afternoon, the final was held with the roof closed – the first in the tournament’s history, which was held for the first time at Roland Garros in 1928.
That’s a huge amount of change for a hero like Nadal, who thrives on routine. But he managed to preserve traditions by extending his rule and ending his string of defeats against Djokovic.
Djokovic had yet to lose a full game in 2020, and his only defeat was coming in the fourth round of the US Open, when he was disqualified late in the first set against Pablo Carreno Busta after throwing a ball and unintentionally hitting him with a streak in the throat. .
Nadal skipped the US Open to focus on Roland Garros, who looked like a landmark hit Sunday as he looked refreshed, eager and irresistible. Djokovic, the 17-time singles champion, did not lose a 6-0 range in the Grand Slam final.
“I thought I was in good shape,” Djokovic said. “I definitely could have played better, especially in the first two sets. But, you know, he surprised me with the way he was playing, the quality of tennis he was producing, the level. I mean, he’s exceptional. He played a perfect match, especially in the first two sets.”
Djokovic, the bristly and flexible Serbian, could not be recognized on Sunday. He stuck to many of the same styles that worked well for him throughout this tournament and in Rome last month, where he won the Italian Open on dirt courts. But his many shots rarely fooled Nadal, who was usually quick and quick to push Djokovic.
“I wanted to kind of block his rhythm,” Djokovic said. “But he was ready. He was there, he was ready. He was making all the right shots today.”
This was often the case at Roland Garros, and if Sunday’s big victory was like any other, it was the 2008 final against Federer, with Nadal winning 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 (surprisingly they are) They are still friends).
Djokovic at least was able to create an interesting third group. He suffered an early break from breaking Nadal for the only time in the match, and he unleashed the fist roar that usually was his way of asserting that momentum had changed.
But Nadal took it back calmly and relentlessly. At 5-5, 30-40, Djokovic fired a second serve near the line that was initially called good but then called for a double foul after the mark was checked by referee Damien Domusoa.
Djokovic took a second look, then took a resigned look and headed to his chair. Then Nadal served the triumph in love, ending with a sliced ace and falling to his knees. In past years, Nadal seemed to be overwhelmed with passion after championship points. This time, his first response was laughter. He certainly wouldn’t even imagine Djokovic, the second-best clay court player of Nadal’s era, win quite like this.
“Everyone knows that this stadium is the most important stadium in my tennis career,” Nadal said later, before using a more somber tone.
“We are in very difficult circumstances,” he said, wearing a mask over his face. “In some ways it is not that happy because we cannot celebrate the tournament in a natural way.”
He added, “I really hope that within two months when we come back here, I hope in June, we can celebrate this wonderful, new and beautiful stadium with an entire audience.”
Nadal and Djokovic faced each other 56 times: more than any man had ever encountered each other on tour in the Open Era. Djokovic leads by 29-27.
“Today you showed why you are the king of clay,” Djokovic said at the award ceremony. “I tested it in my own skin. It was a very difficult game. Obviously I’m not very happy with the way I played, but I was definitely overrated by a better player today.”
Nadal, 34, did not lose a set in seven matches, and Sunday’s victory was his 100th in a match at Roland Garros. That would certainly have been the number of the day had it not been for Federer’s record.
Nadal and Federer have been friendly rivals for more than a decade, playing some of the most memorable matches in the game’s long history, including the classic 2008 Wimbledon Final, which Nadal won in five sets.
But Federer, 39, is nearly five years older than Nadal and has always been ahead of him in the Grand Slam hunt. Until Sunday.
The Grand Slam singles record became the most important point of reference in the game in this era with Federer, Nadal and Djokovic controlling the men’s match and pushing each other to improve their games and prolong their careers.
“I’ve always had a lot of respect for my friend Rafa as a person and as a hero,” Federer said on Twitter Shortly after the final on Sunday. “As my greatest competitor over many years, I think we have pushed each other to become better players.”
Federer described winning the French Cup 13 times as “one of the greatest achievements in sport”. “Hopefully 20 is just another step in the ongoing journey for both of us. Well done, Rafa. You deserve it.”
Nadal’s 20th title will deepen the conversation about who deserves to be considered the greatest male player in the open era and possibly even in the history of the sport (although this comparison is much more difficult).
Nadal wasn’t keen to have that conversation on Sunday.
“I don’t think about twenty today,” he said. “Today for me is just a victory for Roland Garros. Roland Garros means everything to me. I spent here the most important or most important moments of my tennis career. There is no doubt about that.”
Karen Kroos in Paris, Matthew Futerman and Ben Rothenberg contributed to the reports.