The King of Clay reigns supreme, and he added more precious silver to his coveted royal collection.
Under a closed roof in the newly remodeled Philippe Chatrier Stadium, Rafael Nadal handed Novak Djokovic a humiliating 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 defeat in the 2020 French Open Final. The second-ranked player in the world took nearly three hours to defend his Roland Garros title despite what looked like a routine scoreline. Without losing a set all tournament-long, Rafa amazingly claimed his 20th grand slam title, tying Roger Federer for the most all-time.
It was a strange French Open. Normally played in the spring, the clay Grand Slam was moved to the end of September due to the adjusted COVID-19 schedule. Temperatures were cold, the clouds never seemed to leave, and the wind howled like Djokovic finally did at the end of the third set. The conditions were challenging for the players, and it appeared that Nadal would suffer the most from the low-bouncing balls.
“The conditions are the most difficult for me ever for so many different facts. The ball is completely different—super slow and heavy. Slow conditions, the preparations have been less than usual. But I’m here to fight. I’ll try to find the positive vibes,” said Nadal on media day.
However, not even Zeus could have stopped Nadal en route to his 13th French Open Final.
The final started as expected, with Djokovic up 40-15 on his serve in the first game. From there, things were one-sided. Nadal broke serve and played heavy, consistent balls to win every game of the set, handing the world number one his first bagel ever in a major final. At no point did Nadal ease up, shockingly winning the second set 6-2. Overall, the Spaniard played a near-perfect final, and after the match, Djokovic admitted that “he did surprise me with the way he was playing, the quality of tennis he was producing.”
Djokovic continuously called upon his signature drop shot to disrupt Nadal’s rhythm, but it was to no avail. With a left bicep seemingly big enough to compete for a heavyweight championship, the Spaniard had an impeccable plus-minus of plus-seventeen, smacking 31 winners compared to a mere 14 unforced errors. Match commentator John McEnroe joked that anything Nadal touched turned to gold as he couldn’t seem to miss. However, while Djokovic was surely outplayed, he had a disappointing performance, as he announced during the trophy ceremony, hitting an uncharacteristic 52 unforced errors.
Djokovic was regarded by many as the favorite coming into the tournament. Looking to hoist the second French Open title of his career, the Djoker appeared to be in unbeatable form and certainly had no lack of motivation. He had won every tournament he played this year besides the 2020 U.S. Open, which holds an unforgettable asterisk. In the Round of 16 against Pablo Carreno Busta, a frustrated Djokovic smacked a ball at the back fence, unintentionally hitting a lineswoman in the throat leading to his immediate disqualification. Djokovic and the tennis world couldn’t believe the opportunity he had forfeited, having the chance to play a grand slam without Roger [Federer] or Rafa in the draw and gain an advantage over both players in the coveted Grand Slam titles race. Djokovic returned to action a few weeks later and continued his flawless form by winning the prestigious Rome masters title, notably on edge and playing with tremendous self-pressure and focus, which usually pushes the Serb to play his best tennis. Djokovic carried the momentum into Paris, cruising to the semifinals after only having lost one set.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Nadal made a big decision in deciding to opt-out of the New York bubble required for players competing in the Western & Southern and U.S. Opens, both held at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. While most players on tour regained their rhythm after the COVID-19 break on the Flushing Meadows hard courts, the Mallorcan trained on clay at his academy during that time, preparing for Roland Garros.
Nadal certainly had rest and rhythm on his side as the remainder of the tour players had to fly over to Europe and had to adjust to competing on a different surface less than three weeks after the U.S. Open’s conclusion. For newly crowned U.S. Open champion and two-time French Open finalist Dominic Thiem, the physical toll proved too costly as he was upset in the quarterfinals by Diego Schwartzman in a five-set thriller. In the end, Nadal’s decision resulted in a Grand Slam victory while Djokovic sadly was unable to capture an eighteenth major title after starting the year off so strong.
Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic fans all argue over who is the greatest player of all-time, and the Grand Slam title race is often regarded as the most crucial statistic in answering such a difficult question. Federer led both greats in Grand Slams throughout his career, but for the first time, he is no longer leading. Federer acknowledges that he may very well end up third all-time behind Nadal and Djokovic. In an interview in Dubai at the start of 2020, the fan-favorite Swiss remarked, “Now, at the end, if somebody else would pass you, I mean, I guess it’s OK, because that’s what sports is all about. It’s a lot about numbers. It’s a lot about records. But I had my moment and I always said everything that comes after 15 was, anyway, a bonus.”
Federer even congratulated Nadal on his most recent title on Instagram, wishing him more success to come in the future. Nadal views the scenario no differently than Federer. In an interview in May with the Spanish Daily La Voz de Galicia, Nadal admitted:
“Even if Federer or Djokovic finishes with more Grand Slam finals than me, it won’t affect my happiness ten years from now.”
These similar words from two friendly rivals signify why the tennis world loves Rafa and Roger, primarily because of their humility and class.
On the other spectrum, Djokovic has struggled to gain fans and receive the same kind of love as his two foes. Many people simply don’t find Djokovic’s game that interesting, as he can’t produce the RPMs on the forehand like Rafa, or the magical and graceful one-handed backhands like Federer. Other people find Djokovic arrogant and unlikeable. His take on the Grand Slam chase is quite different from the two players he is chasing. After the French Open, he was quoted by Sport Klub in Serbia admitting:
"My desire is still huge. Secondly, I've still got the same professional goals—the historic No.1 ranking (most weeks at number one) and Grand Slam titles. If I achieve the former, for which I have the better chance, as I intend to do next year, I will give all my attention to the Grand Slam tournaments."
Djokovic makes his intentions clear and doesn’t care about sounding egotistical, adapting the mindset of his late mentor Kobe Bryant.
As tennis fans, we are privileged to witness the three greatest players of all-time battle it out through the tail end of their careers. The world prays to see a teary-eyed Nadal hoist the French Open trophy and begs to see Federer kiss a golden Wimbledon trophy dressed in all whites one more time. However, a 33-year-old Serbi named Novak Djokovic is determined to outcompete them both.
Nadal adds one more Grand Slam to his count, but only time will tell how the leader board will look when all is said and done. If it were up to recency bias, Nadal is atop that leader board…for now.
Robbie Werdiger is a freshman at Georgetown University. A former standout at Horace Mann High School, Werdiger has competed on the national junior stage and has achieved USTA rankings of top 25 in the eastern section in numerous age groups. Additionally, Robbie has represented team USA at the world Maccabiah Games in Israel in 2017, the third largest international sporting event in the world.