Novak Djokovic had a hollow look in his eyes. As an owner of 17 Grand Slam titles, in a year where he had not lost one of his previous 37 completed matches, this wasn’t supposed to happen. Losing, even if occasionally if you’re Djokovic, is part of the sport. But being humiliated, is unheard of.
Luckily there were only 1,000 people at Court Phillipe Chatrier to witness the tennis equivalent of a player being hung, drawn and quartered. Fortunately, a global television audience of hundreds of millions did bear witness to an encounter that will rank alongside any of sports greatest achievements.
Rafa Nadal’s hitting power, movement, placement, finesse, guile and mental strength has almost certainly never been more in tune over a three-hour period than they were on Sunday. His 6-0 6-2 7-5 destruction of a brilliant player, elevated Nadal’s achievement into the same stratosphere as Bob Beamon’s 8.90m long jump and gymnast Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10.
There is no such thing as a perfect match in tennis, but Nadal touched perfection against Djokovic. At times throughout the two hours, 41 minute encounter, Nadal reached such ethereal, ridiculous levels of play that you had to feel sorry for Djokovic. And that is not something many people often do.
“He did surprise me with the way he was playing, the quality of tennis he was producing, the level,” Djokovic said after the match. “I mean, he’s phenomenal. He played a perfect match, especially in the first two sets.”
It’s unquantifiable, but if it weren’t, Djokovic could take solace that he probably played the best-ever 0-6 set in tennis history. Seldom has a player hit the ball as well and forced Nadal into uncomfortable positions, as the Serb did in that first set. And yet he failed to win a single game in 45 agonising minutes. Whatever he delivered, seemed to come back with interest from Nadal’s racquet.
There was a sense of déjà vu too, as Djokovic had dished out something similar during the 2019 Australian Open final. On that occasion Djokovic beat Nadal 6-3 6-2 6-3 and only lost six points on his service over the first two sets. It was emphatic, but not quite as brutal as the Roland Garros pasting Nadal dished out.
It was the 56th meeting between Nadal and Djokovic with the Serb leading the head-to-head 29-27. But Nadal has now won seven of their eight clashes at Roland Garros.
Nadal equals Federer
The Spaniard, who in the process of dismantling Djokovic, claimed his 20th career Grand Slam title, which equalled Roger Federer’s record mark. Even at 34, it’s unimaginable that anyone can beat Nadal at the French Open when he’s playing near his best.
Nadal’s record at Roland Garros reads “won 100 matches, lost two” since 2005. Djokovic and Sweden’s Robin Soderling are the only two players to have toppled Nadal on the red clay – both in earlier round matches. Based on Nadal’s 2020 performance, he might be winning the French Open into his forties.
“For two-and-a-half sets I played great. I can’t say another thing. It is impossible to have this score against Novak without playing great,” Nadal told the media after the match.
“I played at my highest level when I needed to play at my highest level, which is something I am very proud of. 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 not the conditions that I will choose, never, to play an event like this.
“I was able to adapt well. I was able, as I say the first day, to be positive in every circumstance that I was facing during the whole event, trying to accept all the challenges in terms of sometimes the feeling on the ball that wasn’t great because of the cold and everything.
“The win here means everything to me,” he said. “It’s not the moment, honestly for me. I don’t think today about the 20th [title], equalling Roger on this great number. For me, today is just a Roland Garros victory. Roland Garros means everything to me. I spent here most of the important moments in my tennis career, no doubt about that.”
The big three going nowhere
Nadal’s victory reasserted the “big three’s” dominance over younger players yet again, after 27-year-old Austrian Dominic Thiem recently won the US Open. His impressive breakthrough though, does have an asterisk because Nadal and Federer did not attend and Djokovic was disqualified for inadvertently striking a lineswoman with a ball.
Thiem though, is the closest in terms of standard and consistency, having stretched Nadal in two Roland Garros finals (2018, 2019) and Djokovic in the 2020 Australian Open final.
But despite their advanced years, the big three don’t look like they’re going away. Even Federer at 39, is not ready to retire. And why should he.
Over a 17-year-period, Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic have dominated tennis in ways never seen before. Including Federer’s first of eight Wimbledon titles in 2003, the trio have claimed 57 of the 68 Grand Slams played since. That’s 14 years-worth of Grand Slam titles in a 17-year period.
Thiem’s US Open triumph, ended a run of 13 consecutive Grand Slams won by the big three, going back to Stan Wawrinka’s 2016 US Open win. Of those 68 Grand Slam tournaments, only Wawrinka and Andy Murray have won more than one Slam (three each). DM
Total Grand Slam titles and matches played by the big three:
Federer: Titles: 20, matches won 362, matches lost 59
Nadal: Titles: 20, matches won 282, matches lost 39
Djokovic: Titles: 17, matches won 296, matches lost 45.