French Open 2020: Rafael Nadal's latest Roland Garros success his most remarkable ever
For a creature of habit, Rafael Nadal overcame multiple new factors at an October French Open to triumph once again. For a staggering 13th time.
On 25 September, Rafael Nadal said, "The conditions here are probably the most difficult conditions for me ever at Roland Garros for so many different facts. The ball is completely different. It is super slow, heavy. It's also very cold, slow conditions. And of course, the preparation has been less than usual."
All true. The bounce from Nadal's top-spin heavy forehand was lower which meant lesser purchase for him on his best surface. The balls were heavier and under a different brand. The cold didn't suit Rafa, personally, or even for his tennis. As for the preparation, he had played just three matches since early March. There was little to be optimistic about for the Spaniard.
Fast forward to 11 October, just over two weeks later. Nadal briefly fell to the ground having won the tournament, his 13th French Open, his 20th Grand Slam, making his win-loss record 100-2 at this venue. He would then go on to replicate his typical celebration of biting into the silverware.
Concerns about digging into a trophy that was touched by multiple people aside, this was the normal everyone has been used to seeing. Adding to the exemplary achievement is the fact that Nadal went without dropping a set and in the final, provided Novak Djokovic with no freebies.
Djokovic, World No. 1, a person who held a 37-1 record this year and the only defeat had come when he inadvertently hit a line judge to be defaulted. To each his/her own but Djokovic was undefeated coming into it. He had won the Italian Open and possibly, had better odds to win the title. He went the first four rounds in straight sets before struggling against Pablo Carreno Busta and Stefanos Tsitsipas.
All said and done, it was there for Novak to take as Nadal battled form and conditions. And yet, as they faced off for the 56th time, it was the Spaniard who triumphed and did so rather comfortably. A 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 scoreline doesn't tell the whole story though.
“I was also thinking that these conditions are more favourable to me,” said Djokovic in the press conference. “I was feeling great throughout the tournament, playing great tennis, winning in Rome, being very confident about my game. But Rafa has proven everybody wrong. That's why he's a great champion. He just played a fantastic match today. That's all.”
And it was a fantastic performance alright. In the first two sets, Nadal hit 21 winners but more crucially just six unforced errors. It took Djokovic nearly an hour to win a game and almost an hour and half to win the second. The Serb did struggle with his first serves and consistency with the groundstrokes but at no point did he play poorly enough to suggest such a scoreline. Nothing highlights that more than 45 minutes being needed for a 6-0 set. Or that the first love game came after 12 games with eight of first 13 games going to deuce.
The third set, however, was more even. Djokovic started to find his range, the groundstrokes began landing in and the break proved to be a confidence booster. The limited crowd played its part, too, in egging Novak on. A loose service effort, with a double fault on break point, gave Nadal the much-needed advantage. And that's all that he needed to get the job done.
The final tally: 31 winners and 14 unforced errors. Usually it is Djokovic who is skint with errors but it was Nadal's day all the way. “Of course I played at an amazing level of tennis. For two sets and a half I played great. I can't say another thing. It’s impossible to have this score against him without playing great,” Nadal said. “I played at my highest level when I needed to play at my highest level, so [that’s] something I am very proud of."
He has more than just that to be proud of. Nadal has faced multiple challenges in the past when he's come to Roland Garros. Last year it were the surprise defeats in the tune-up events. The questions revolved around his capability to get past newer challengers and drop in form. In 2016 it was the wrist which eventually forced him to retire before the third round.
But this year was different. And Nadal acknowledged there being doubts.
“Doubts are part of life. I always say the same. For me, doubts are good because it means that you don't consider yourself too good,” Nadal said. “Of course, this year has been a tough year for everyone. Of course, my preparation for this tournament [was] not perfect.
“I was in doubt before the match, yes. But it's true that my level of confidence and tennis has been improving every single day during the whole tournament."
“The feeling of the ball, practising even today in the morning, then the warm-up, yesterday, my level of confidence hitting the ball has been going up every single day. I was not confident, because you can't be too confident going on court against Novak, but I have been positive, thinking I would be able to play a good match.”
There was the No. 20 factor in play as well. However much the Big 3 not talk about it, it stays in their mind. They are well aware of what the record reads. Nadal might not have wanted to talk about equalling Federer's tally, opting to focus on the No. 13 instead, but it does add to the pressure.
— Roger Federer (@rogerfederer) October 11, 2020
“I never hide that for me… I would love to finish my career being the player with more Grand Slams. No doubt about that,” Nadal said. “But on the other hand I say, ‘Okay, I have to do my way.’ I did [things] 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 always be unhappy because your neighbour has a bigger house than you or a bigger boat or have a better phone. You have to live your personal life.”
In the past, he could call on his experience to figure things out on the way to a French Open title. This time, though, it all was so new to him and everyone else. Nadal is a creature of habit. There are idiosyncrasies that are unique to him: from first step on the court to placement of water bottles. This was one change too many and yet not only did Nadal win, he did so without dropping a set, going past the player who had beat him in Rome, going past the in-form player in the world.
There was little for Nadal to be hopeful about a fortnight ago and yet, in the most normal of ways at Roland Garros, it is the Spaniard carrying the Coupe des Mousquetaires around. “I think (it) is one of the Roland Garros that have a better personal value for myself.”
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