Rafael Nadal’s journey to greatness


Far from what has now become the convention after he wins a French Open, Rafael Nadal did not slip on to his back and cake his soaked tee with Parisian clay. Instead, he simply lowered himself to his knees and laughed, hysterically and triumphantly, into his taped palms. Beyond the net, Novak Djokovic could only shrug.

For a decade and a half, Nadal has turned winning at Roland Garros into a repetitive– even ordinary!– act. But even for Nadal, everything about Sunday was extraordinary: from his straight sets decimation of the world No. 1 (including a first set bagel), to recording his 100thwin in this tournament to winning a 13th French Open title.

But on Sunday, history pegged itself on an even more significant number–20. With the help of his immaculate fortnight in Roland Garros, where he didn’t drop a set, Nadal tied Roger Federer for the most Grand Slams in men’s tennis, tastefully setting up the finish to this incredible era. “For me today is not about equalling Roger or twenty,” Nadal said with usual modesty. “Today is about the French Open, it means everything to me.”

It could be argued that Djokovic had almost as much as riding on this final. Had he won, he would’ve become the first man in the Open Era to win each of the Grand Slams twice. But for that, he had to become the only human to defeat Nadal twice in Paris. But as the eventual 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 defeat proved, even the hope of beating the Spaniard in the final, where he has never been defeated, was a stretch too far.

“What you are doing on this court is unbelievable. Today you showed why you are the king of clay,” said Djokovic. “I was totally outplayed but I am not happy with how I played either.”

Against the run of play in the first set– and the match– Djokovic won the first rally of the contest. The sparse crowd at Court Philippe Chatrier remained quiet behind their masks. Then a growling Nadal forehand tested Djokovic’s backhand to level the points and the audience erupted. Djokovic scowled.

Djokovic’s tactical chink of elephantine proportions– the drop shot –would hamper him for the course of the match. But it raised its wretched head during the very first game. Djokovic had received great success employing it right through this tournament, 147 drops in the lead up to the final this year versus just 72 attempts in Roland Garros 2019.

Serving on deuce, the Serb pulled Nadal forward with a short-arm slice and followed it up with a baseline-kissing lob. Nadal scurried back and flicked his return over his right shoulder and a rally ensued. Djokovic hung on during the crosscourt exchange, but Nadal ripped a winner up the forehand flank and the Serb looked on, amazed. Serve broken and ego wounded, Djokovic shelved the drop shot for much of the next game. But at deuce he dusted it off, only for Nadal to run it down and spank an angled volley from the net. Down 2-0, Djokovic looked up to the skies for intervention. No luck; the Chatrier roof was closed for the duration of the match.

The story of the match would remain unchanged: Nadal rifling groundstroke winners, successfully chasing down drop shots, and simply refusing to make unforced errors.

Djokovic had won 88 per cent of his service games over the Paris fortnight. On Sunday, that percentage had dropped to a resounding zero at the end of the first set, with Nadal breaking him on all three occasions and facing only a solitary break point in the fourth game. But the very fact that a bagel-set had lasted as long as 48 minutes should have informed Djokovic that he was still in the fight.

He sure needed all that belief to win the opening game of the second set, rallying back from 15-40 down. But here’s a morbid statistic: it had taken 56 minutes of tennis for the best-ranked player in the world to win his first game of a championship match. By the time Djokovic won his second and postponed the inevitable at 2-5, his body language had caved in. The feet dragged on clay and the neck slumped between points. Nadal was now two sets up and only history beckoned.

Djokovic briefly thundered to life when he stopped the Nadal juggernaut from going up 4-2 in the third. He dug deep, outhit Nadal from the back and roared at the stands as he posted his first break of serve, two hours and change into the match. Even though this new-found resistance lasted over an hour in the third set, it was too little, too late. Nadal ended and aptly summed up the evening’s affair with an ace–yet another shot at history that Djokovic had no way of stopping.

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