Rafael Nadal didn’t boast about arguably his greatest performance yet. In the minutes after the French Open men’s final, when, annually, the sports world is most focused on him, he spoke behind a pink face mask about the challenge the globe is facing.
“I want to send a message everyone around the world,” he said. “Just keep going, stay positive. .. We will go through this and we will win [against] the virus soon.”
Nadal also refused to take delight in tying Roger Federer‘s male record 20 Grand Slam singles titles. He kept the discussion on one of those four major tournaments and what he called “a love story” with the city of Paris.
“It’s not the moment, honestly not for me, I don’t think today about the 20th of equal Roger on this great number,” Nadal, now 100-2 at the French Open, said on Court Philippe Chatrier. “Today is just a Roland Garros victory. Roland Garros means everything to me. I spent here the most important moments, or most of the most important moments of my tennis career, no doubt.”
Nadal authored one of those special moments Sunday, a few-would-have-predicted rout of Novak Djokovic 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 to lift a record-extending 13th Coupe des Mousquetaires and draw level with Federer for the first time.
“I was completely overplayed by Rafa,” said the world No. 1 Djokovic, arguably the pre-tournament and pre-final favorite who suffered his first completed-match loss in 11 months. “He played a perfect match.”
In the most prolific rivalry in Open Era men’s tennis, Nadal held Djokovic to the fewest games won by either player in their best-of-five history. Until Djokovic tested him in the third set, Nadal was en route to the most lopsided Grand Slam men’s final in 43 years.
The match was reminiscent of the 2019 Australian Open final, when Djokovic shellacked Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 6-3. Nadal referenced this on court Sunday, soon after match point.
“In Australia, he killed me a couple of times ago,” Nadal said. “Today was for me. That’s part of the game.”
For Nadal, doubt is always part of the game. He had plenty of it at the start of the pandemic-postponed tournament two weeks ago.
In September in Rome, his first tournament in nearly seven months, Nadal suffered a rare straight-sets loss on clay, to Argentine Diego Schwartzman.
In his pre-French Open press conference, Nadal provided pessimism (not uncommon for him, even before this tournament).
He noted extreme weather conditions, temperatures in the 50s that he would say later in the tournament were too unsafe to be holding matches. And a different brand of tennis ball, one he said was too dangerous for use on clay, becoming so heavy that it could harm a player’s elbows and shoulders.
“Honestly, one month and a half ago, if you tell me you’re going to have this trophy with you again, I will say, this year will probably be too difficult,” Nadal said.
Yet Nadal marched into the final without dropping a set, including a semifinal grudge match with Schwartzman. He said his level of play would not be enough against Djokovic.
“I need to make a step forward,” Nadal said Friday.
That happened quickly on a rainy Sunday under a closed Chatrier roof (another new feature this year that was supposed to hinder Nadal). The Spaniard hit 10 winners to two unforced errors in the opening set. It took 55 minutes for Djokovic to win his first game.
“He did surprise me,” Djokovic said. “The quality of tennis he was producing, the level. I mean, he’s phenomenal.”
Add it to Nadal’s greatest hits list, which also includes the 2008 French Open final (6-1, 6-3, 6-0 over Federer) and the 2017 French Open final (6-2, 6-3, 6-1 over Stan Wawrinka).
“I played at my highest level when I needed to play at my highest level,” Nadal said. “The personal satisfaction is big because under the circumstances that we played this Roland Garros, even if I played an amazing match this afternoon, the conditions are a little bit not the conditions that I will choose, never, to play an event like this.”
Forty-three minutes after match point, Federer, sidelined after two knee surgeries, shared his thoughts on social media. Nadal, 34, has never outwardly engaged in the trophy race with Djokovic (17 Slams at age 33) and Federer (39 years old). He reverted to a familiar refrain Sunday.
“I’m not going to be thinking all the time Novak have this one, Roger is winning the other one,” he said. “You can’t be always unhappy because your neighbor have a bigger house than you or a bigger boat or have a better phone. You have to live your personal life, no?”
It will still dominate the men’s tennis discussion going into the next major, the Australian Open in January. Djokovic has won that a male record eight times. The Serbian missed his chance over the last 35 days to draw level with Nadal.
At the U.S. Open, he shouldered the blame, defaulted in the fourth round for striking a ball in anger that hit a linesperson in the throat. Neither Nadal nor Federer entered the tournament.
In Paris, Nadal dictated Djokovic’s demise.
“It’s just one of these days where you have to just say, Chapeau, and well done,” said Djokovic, who has been working on his French.
For everything that’s gone wrong in 2020, the Grand Slam season ended with arguably the most beautiful scene in modern tennis: Nadal biting the Coupe des Mousquetaires on Chatrier.
“This court is the most important court in my tennis career, the court that I enjoyed more special moments,” Nadal said, “and today was one of these.”
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