Magnificent Rafa Nadal seals his rightful place in tennis history

Spaniard ripped a page from Federer’s play book and was almost flawless in beating Djokovic

 Rafael Nadal  celebrates his victory over     Novak Djokovic in the men’s singles final at the French Open at Roland Garros. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

Rafael Nadal celebrates his victory over Novak Djokovic in the men’s singles final at the French Open at Roland Garros. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

 

For two weeks Rafa Nadal saw threats all around Roland Garros.

The autumn weather, the clouded skies over Paris, the moisture in the air and the falling temperatures, they all conspired against him and his widely-feared forehand. Slow and heavy, he complained at the beginning. Even the balls were not to his liking.

But the deceleration of Nadal’s left arm was just the distraction to keep him challenged in front of a whittled-down crowd under the closed roof of the Philippe Chatrier court.

His celebration at the end was not as dramatic as in previous years but, as he fell to his knees in triumph, he also stepped up to his rightful place in tennis history alongside Roger Federer with a 20th Grand Slam title.

At the end it was not the usual raucous roll in the red clay. There were no heaving crowds rising to their feet as he aced world number one, Novak Djokovic, on the first of three match points in a close-to-perfection win, 6-0, 6-2, 7-5.

Any doubts had been wildly overstated as the 34-year-old Spaniard ripped through Djokovic in 2 hours 41 minutes to win a record 13th French Open championship and join Federer as a co-equal all time great of the men’s game. Now only Steffi Graf (22), Serena Williams (23) and Margaret Court (24) have won more tennis majors than Nadal or Federer.

Nadal carved his way through the draw without dropping a set on his way to Sunday’s schooling. Oddly he was not seen as the nailed-on favourite, a strange place for the greatest clay court player of all time to find himself. A surface he has owned since first winning in 2005, it is where he has won more than any player.

It also arrives after more than a decade of global fetishing over the aesthete Federer, who won his first Slam at Wimbledon in 2003. This time Nadal, more muscular and prosaic but no less respected, ripped a page from Federer’s play book and was almost flawless. Leading in sets 2-0, Nadal had hit six unforced errors, a bewildered Djokovic 30.

The 20th Grand Slam champagne cork also popped in an era where success is measured in championship titles. Always numbers. It wasn’t so long ago that players like Bjorn Borg skipped the long journey to the Australian Open in blazing January, preferring a lazy run into the clay season and Paris before a quick skip to London and the grass. It was a different generation. There was a different way of measuring greatness.

Old-school humility

But more than the numbers, there will be an outpouring of goodwill for Nadal and his old-school humility. The journalists who speak to him in Spanish have always attested to that side of his nature as well as a sharp sense of perspective, not always evident in athletes who rule their sport.

“The feeling is more sad than usual,” he said last week of the eerie quiet. “Maybe that’s what it needs to feel like. It needs to be sad. Many people in the world are suffering.”

Yesterday it was just Djokovic suffering. Had he won, he would have been the first of the ‘Big Three’ to have won all the Grand Slams twice. As it stands all three have won in Melbourne, Paris, London and New York, although, it was Djokovic who came into the final not having been outplayed all year. He lost just one match, when he was defaulted at the US Open for hitting a line judge in the throat with a ball.

And even for fans who see the tennis world through the prism of Federer’s backhand, the momentous milestone will be greeted with affection as the Swiss champion is currently sidelined with two knee surgeries and cannot compete. But at 39-years-old Federer is not yet folding his tent.

A badly bruised Djokovic, on 17 Grand Slams, is poised along with Federer to continue the race into next year as each of them fuels the other, the young set not yet punching through with consistent threat.

In a strange Grand Slam season, an uplifting and familiar end.

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