Rafael Nadal’s 100th match win at the French Open earned him his 20th Grand Slam title, tying Roger Federer for the men’s singles record. The match itself was an oddity, a 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 drubbing of world No. 1 Novak Djokovic played under a closed roof despite sunny Parisian skies.
Nadal celebrated with gusto anyway, pumping his fists and laughing into his shirt like a giddy first-time winner.
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 No 1? 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 respectability it deserved. But there was no denying the incomparable Spaniard, who struck his fourth ace for a merciful release from the agony.
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 in Paris in 2006, Djokovic retired with a back injury in the second set. On Sunday, at 33, he brought a suspect neck and his outsized heart. He needed the latter.
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 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,” the two-times 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 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% first serve. Djokovic 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 him 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 at Roland Garros in 2008 against Federer – but never to Djokovic.
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 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 grand 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 grand slams and eighth in nine encounters at Roland Garros.
“It’s just beyond anything that anyone could have imagined,” said the 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 – just over 10% on 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 grand slam singles finals than Nadal (28) and Djokovic (27). That is 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.
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When Iga Swiatek won the women’s title on Saturday, she became the first 19-year-old to lift a singles trophy at Roland Garros since … Nadal. Yet nobody in the history of the game has won more than Nadal’s six grand slams after turning 30.
How many more Nadal can add is down to health and ambition. He once said he regretted not being young any more. Winning finals of this quality will put a few more wrinkles on his brow.