Novak Djokovic drove Rafael Nadal to almost unprecedented heights of excellence at Roland Garros on Sunday afternoon, powerless to stop his oldest rival winning his 13th French Open and the 20th major he needed to match the all-time record of their absent friend, Roger Federer.
Nadal's 100th win here was almost flawless – 6-0, 6-1, 7-5 in two hours and 41 minutes in front of a drastically reduced audience because of the Covid-19 pandemic at a rescheduled slam under a new roof at Court Philippe Chatrier, with the flecks of Parisian sun sneaking through the gaps – yet a final of rolling contradictions, too.
How to explain a first set in which the two best players in the men’s game traded shots of mind-numbing quality for 45 minutes, yet Nadal inflicted a rare bagel on the world No1? Indeed, at many stages in this compelling struggle the scoreboard seemed at odds with what was happening on court.
There was almost equal carnage in the second set before Djokovic launched the inevitable fightback in the third to lend the occasion a garland of the respectability it deserved. But there was no denying the incomparable Spaniard, who struck his fourth ace for a merciful release from the agony.
On court, he declined to celebrate drawing alongside Federer, intent instead on embracing the moment as his national anthem filled the near-empty stadium. Djokovic was not so reluctant: “Today you showed why you are king of the clay,” he said to his humble friend.
The first time they played here, in 2006, Djokovic retired with a back injury in the second set. On Sunday, at 33, he brought a suspect neck and his out-sized heart. He needed it.
They locked horns like a pair of old pugs, knowing they were about to suffer as they had done so often. Nadal, hitting from deep but with his eye on the drop shot, drew first blood at the start to break from 40-15 down.
From there the set and the match entered the realm of the surreal. There will be plenty who witnessed it who will swear the Serb played the better tennis in the first set, although they were both on a plane reached by few.
"It was remarkable shot-making from both players," two-time champion Jim Courier observed on ITV. "Nadal was very aware of the drop shot."
It was fatuous to say the spoils would go to the player with the stronger desire, as is the cliche, because both wanted it as much as Greta Thunberg wants a clean planet. Every shot echoed alongside a grunt. Lungs sucked hard at the cool air.
What both sought to exploit was their eye for an angle, and it was a delight to watch as they finessed close-quarter points with uncanny anticipation and the sharpest of 30-plus reflexes, alongside full-muscled winners deep and wide.
When Djokovic saved three break points in the second set to hold serve for the first time after 56 minutes, his mood momentarily lightened – until he netted a careless short forehand to blow the third game.
Nadal was not quite the unchallenged master yet of his “own house”, as Djokovic called it beforehand, but his game was rock solid behind a 92 per cent first serve. Djokovic, meanwhile, wilted with ball in hand and Nadal read his umpteenth drop shot to lead 4-1. Although his level had slipped from the heights of the first set, Djokovic was not playing poorly.
It took Djokovic an hour-and-a-half to hold again, stretching the second set a little longer. It was compelling theatre, and tough to watch. Nadal had done this to many players – even here in 2008 against Federer – but never to Djokovic. After token resistance, Djokovic went two sets down after an hour and a half.
He went ahead for the first time at the start of the third set, after an hour and 43 minutes of gripping theatre. He would now pull off the the greatest comeback in the modern game - winning three sets in a row from 2-0 down against the best player in the history of clay court tennis – or lose for the first time in six slam finals since Stan Wawrinka beat him at the US Open in 2016.
It was, inevitably, the latter, yet the loser held his head nearly as high as the winner at the end It was Nadal’s 27th win in their rivalry, his ninth in 16 slams and eighth in nine encounters at Roland Garros.
“It’s just beyond anything that anyone could have imagined,” observed Tournament director Guy Forget. “Maybe in the future someone will witness something better but, in my mind, that’s the biggest sporting achievement any sport will ever see.”
Nadal’s achievements are embroidered in ochre. His 100th match win at Roland Garros was the 999th of his career – 10 per cent, almost, on the French clay. It has been mostly a benign Spanish rule, tolerated then celebrated in the face of the inevitable.
Victory over an opponent who had not lost in 38 completed matches all year put him in the most illustrious centurions' club, alongside Chris Evert's 101 wins at the US Open, Federer's 102 in Melbourne and 101 at Wimbledon, and Serena Williams, who has won 106 times at Flushing Meadows.
Only Federer, with 31, has played in more slam singles finals than Nadal (28) and Djokovic (27). That’s a near impenetrable shutout of their contemporaries in the Open era. Federer has spread his 20 majors over 14 years and seven months – just four months longer than Nadal. A lot of marriages don’t last that long, and their relationship – with interventions from Djokovic – has been the enduring rivalry of modern sport.
When Iga Swiatek won the women’s title on Saturday, she became the first 19-year-old to lift a singles trophy here since . . . Nadal. Yet nobody in the history of the game has won more than Nadal’s six slams after turning 30.
How many more he can add is down to his health and his ambition. He once said he regretted not being young any more. Winning finals of this quality will put a few more wrinkles on his Spanish brow. - Guardian