Records are meant to be broken, and almost all existing ones will indeed be broken over the next century.
All but one, though, because no one will ever win the French Open 13 times or amass 100 victories with just a pair of defeats over a 15-year span like Rafa Nadal has done. The Spaniard thoroughly and utterly dominated Djokovic, even from a tactical perspective, a feat that could be hardly predicted. As a matter of fact, the Eurosport crew, made of full-on or borderline Hall-of-Famers like McEnroe, Wilander, Courier and Henman, foresaw that the Serbian, who has a more complete and varied repertoire of shots, would have finally dethroned Nadal in Paris, aided by the perks of a heavy court to counter his opponent’s vaunted-and-yet-blunted topspin groundstrokes. Moreover, the final was played under the roof of the Philip Chatrier stadium, another element that was thought to work in the world number one’s favour, since he usually annihilates the competition when playing indoors.
Well, they were all wrong, we were all wrong, especially vis-à-vis the proportions of the scoreline. Djokovic had never been beaten so harshly in a Major final; what’s more is that Nadal could have actually trundled his way to an even bigger triumph, since he was leading 3-2 with a break in the third set before losing his serve for the sole time – he also had a break point at 4-4 to serve the match out a few minutes earlier than he ended up doing, when Djokovic double faulted at 5-5 to concede for good. Up 6-5 40-0, the King of Clay aced out the tournament in style with a typical southpaw slice serve, leaving Djokovic agape once more before falling to his knees – he would later give way to tears during the Spanish national anthem.
What are the reasons behind such a blowout, aside from journalistic clichés such as “Rafa was at his best, and it just wasn’t Novak’s day”?
- Djokovic’s serve was appalling. He seldom put a first serve in play. The first two times he got broken, he was 2 out of 8 and 1 out of 6, respectively. He fought valiantly for 33 minutes, but after falling 4-0 behind he managed to lose his serve again after springing to a 40-0 lead…
- He got a little too enamoured of the drop shot (he hit 35 against Tsitsipas, about 30 against Nadal), failing to realise that the quick nature of those points doesn’t give him enough rhythm and control with his groundstrokes. If a player like him, who thrives in long and asphyxiating exchanges based on moving the opponent, loses the habit to go over nine shots, he will end up suffering against Nadal, a player who pretty much never misses – just three unforced errors in the opening two sets.
- While the Spaniard’s signature shot is his forehand, during the final he wreaked havoc with the slice backhand as well. The shot landed low and short, forcing Djokovic to take a few steps forward in no-man’s land (the area between the service line and the baseline), offering him an uncomfortable look on which it was very difficult to inject pace.
The outcome was that Rafa won his favourite tournament without dropping a set for the fourth time after already doing so in 2008, 2010, and 2017. Jannik Sinner was the only one who got to at least try serve out a set against him – if the Italian was able to do that at 19, who knows how good he’ll become in the next few years, since his performance didn’t happen by chance.
Roger Federer, who was in Milan during the weekend when his frenemy equaled his record tally of 20 Majors (Djokovic is at 17), immediately took to social media to comment on Nadal’s win: “I have always had the utmost respect for my friend Rafa as a person and as a champion. As my greatest rival over many years, I believe we have pushed each other to become better players […]. I hope 20 is just another step on the continuing journey for both of us. Well done, Rafa. You deserve it.”
Nadal replied during his press conference: “I think, as everybody know, we have a very, very good relationship. We respect each other a lot. At the same time in some way I think he’s happy when I’m winning and I’m happy when he’s doing the things well. I never hide that for me, I always say the same, that I would love to finish my career being the player with more Grand Slams. But in the other hand I say, okay, I have to do it my way. I did my way during all my career. In terms of these records, of course that I care. I am a big fan of the history of sport in general. I respect a lot that. For me means a lot to share this number with Roger, no? But let’s see what’s going on when we finish our careers.”
In 1930, Italian cyclist Alfredo Binda was offered a huge sum to withdraw from the Giro d’Italia after winning it for five years in a row. Will it happen to Rafa Nadal in Paris too? It looks like the only way to stop him.