Rampant Rafael Nadal beats Djokovic for win No100
Nadal draws level with Federer’s record 20 Majors: “To play here is a true inspiration”
Should there really have been any doubt about the final line-up at this belated French Open in a Covid stricken Paris?
Did the results in New York—host of the first Masters of the year, Cincinnati, and the second Major of the year, the US Open—blindside fans and experts alike to the likely unfolding of the draw just a month later?
Surely this was the time for one of the younger stars to step up and displace the old guard. The not-so-young Dominic Thiem took the plaudits at the US Open, Alexander Zverev made his first Major final, Andrey Rublev made the quarters in New York and then transitioned perfectly to clay to win his third title of the year in Hamburg—though only just against the striking Greek, Stefanos Tsitsipas.
There was Denis Shapovalov into the top 10 for the first time after a quarter run at the US Open and the semis at the Rome Masters, plus a handful Thiem-generation players who had returned from the pandemic shutdown in good form and great shape: Grigor Dimitrov, Diego Schwartzman, Pablo Carreno Busta among them.
And without world No4 and semi-finalist last year, Roger Federer, on the scene due to continued rehab from knee surgery, and with the two-time runner-up Thiem fatigued beyond measure by the time he bowed out in the quarters, it was time for new names to reach the semis.
And certainly, both Schwartzman and Tsitsipas had a chance against 34-year-old Rafael Nadal and 33-year-old Novak Djokovic respectively.
Nadal had been unceremoniously beaten in the quarters of the Rome Masters, as defending and nine-time champion, by Schwartzman and appeared to lack sharpness and speed in his first matches since February. And he was the first to admit that he did not relish the cold, damp conditions and new heavy balls that he faced in Paris.
Djokovic had wavered in cold conditions against Carreno Busta, against whom he suffered his only defeat of the year so far by a default, and he needed physio to neck and shoulder. Come Tsitispas, though, the world No1 was close to flawless, with any injury concerns banished.
So in the end, of course it was the old guard, the top two in the world, the pair who owned 36 Majors between them, who were the last ones standing.
So often had these two beaten all comers that their rivalry had now reached a 56th meeting, with the first being way back in 2006 at this very tournament. But who would come out top this time?
In eight meetings at Roland Garros, Nadal had won six times, but Djokovic owned a 29-26 lead overall. And after eight previous Major finals, they stood locked at 4-4.
Djokovic was aiming to become the first man in the Open Era to win all four Majors more than once. Victory would also move him within one Major title of Nadal and only two short of the all-time men’s record, Federer’s 20.
And make no mistake, Djokovic has been a man on a mission this year. He was up to 37-1 with four titles, plus a clean sweep of six wins as he led Serbia to the ATP Cup title. And he made it clear, in an interview in May: “I believe that I can win the most Slams and break the record for [most weeks] at No1. Those are definitely my clear goals.”
But he faced one of the all-time greatest challenges in tennis: Nadal at Roland Garros.
For the Spaniard was hoping to extend his already-extraordinary record to 13 titles and, most significantly, equal Federer’s record 20. If he did so, it would also be his 100th match-win at the French Open: He stood at 99-2, and the second of those losses was to Djokovic in 2015.
And when it came to playing Djokovic on clay, Nadal also had the advantage, 17-7, including wins in their past three meetings on the surface. And he had not dropped a set all tournament.
One more fact, for those of a superstitious bent—and Nadal is famed for his pre-match and mid-match rituals—is that the Spaniard had spent 13hrs13mins on court to reach the final. Unlucky for some, of course, but surely title No13 was written in the stars?
All three opening games went to deuce, but all three went to Nadal, including two breaks of serve. Djokovic’s tactics were clear, to deploy the drop shot against a player who spends much of the time dominating from behind the baseline. But several times Nadal was up to the test, chasing them down and then reaching the follow-up lob or smashing an overhead away.
In a long fourth game, Djokovic worked three break-back chances, but Nadal saved them all, and after more than half an hour, he led 4-0. For good measure, he broke again, also to deuce, before completing the only easy game of the set with an ace, 6-0.
The scoreline did not do justice to the quality on both sides, but one statistic stood out: Djokovic had made 13 errors, Nadal just two.
Djokovic had to battle long and hard in the opening of the second set, too, 12 points and three break points—but finally got a game on the board. However, he faced the same problem in the seven-minute third game, and netted a forehand on breakpoint, 1-2.
Not only was Nadal cruising to pick up the Djokovic drop-shots, but he was firing his forehand as though this was a hot summer in Paris rather than under the Philippe Chatrier roof. The defending champion broke again, and then held to love for the first time with two forehand winners, 5-1. He served out the set, 6-2, with just six errors in his tally to 30 from Djokovic.
But the Serb began the third set considerably better, and resisted one break point to keep a 2-1 lead. Could the Spaniard respond? The answer was swift, a break to love, but Djokovic dug in to force his first break point against Nadal since the start of the first set. The Serb converted his second chance, and roared himself on for the first time in the match.
He then played a wonderfully creative game to hold, 4-3, and as his level rose, it looked as though Nadal may falter. He did not, and facing break point, Djokovic hit a double fault, leaving Nadal to serve for the title.
Never is Djokovic more dangerous than when staring down the barrel of a gun—but not this time. Nadal served it out to love with an ace, 7-5, knelt on his beloved court, and beamed.
It was his century of match-wins, and a once-in-a-century achievement—13 French Open titles. It also drew him level with rival and friend Federer, who was surely watching from somewhere in Switzerland and sending his personal congratulations.
Not that Nadal wanted to celebrate that achievement. He said:
“It’s just a Roland Garros victory. I spent here most of the most important moments in my tennis career. Just to play here is a true inspiration.”
He then shared a message with those watching in Paris and around the world:
“Everyone around the world, we are facing one of the worst moments that I think we remember in the world, fighting this virus. Just keep going, stay positive and all the very best. Together we will beat this soon.”
No13, then: Not unlucky for some after all.