At the post-match press conference, Novak Djokovic made a point that aptly summarised his French Open 2020 final against Rafael Nadal: “I was surprised with the way he was playing, the quality of tennis he was producing.” Coming from the reigning World Number 1 and arguably the best men’s tennis player over the last decade, it was deeply insightful. Nadal produced something special and showcased the new weapons in his armoury that have been work in progress for a while — sharp backhand drives with extra pace, depth and angle that were repeatedly forcing Djokovic to lunge for his shots. Sharp serves and deft tactical play completely threw Djokovic off the radar.
Before the much anticipated final between the top two players, I did a bit of research on who was the favourite. John McEnroe said Djokovic would fancy his chances, while Boris Becker picked Nadal. By most accounts, it was a dead heat. With a 99-2 (win-loss) record at Roland Garros going into the final, it was hard to argue against Nadal. But then a deeper look across their record over the past five years revealed that Djokovic had Nadal number, winning 10 out of their 13 meetings including a quarter-final win at the French Open in 2015.
Additionally, Djokovic walked into Court Philippe Chatrier with a 3-0 record in their past three Grand Slam meetings. It was perfectly set up for an epic final. And tennis fans the world over were tuned in. What unfolded in the 2-hour-41-minute duel was the reinvention of Nadal.
Spain’s Rafael Nadal (L) celebrates after winning the French Open final against Serbia’s Novak Djokovic (R). (Photo: Reuters)
At the victory ceremony, Nadal said, “In Australia [2019 AO finals] he killed me [6-3, 6-2, 6-3]. Today was for me. That is part of the game. We have played plenty of times together. One day someone wins and another day it is the other. So all the best for the future, Novak.”
All those who watched the Australian Open final would remember how Djokovic toyed with Nadal. From 2015 onwards, both Djokovic and Federer have had the better of their respective exchanges with Nadal. It was time for Nadal to find the extra gear.
Conditions at French Open, normally played in spring/early summer, were a far cry from Nadal’s liking. The weather was distinctly cooler, which neutralised, to some extent, his potent high-bouncing forehand. The new heavier balls used were detrimental to his style of play, and the midday rain meant the finals were to be played under a closed roof; another perceived advantage to Djokovic. But what followed was staggering. The reigning World No 1 beaten 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 in a dazzling display of tennis by Nadal.
Over the past decade and a half, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have pushed each other to greater heights. From 2005 to 2010, Djokovic played bridesmaid to Fedal (Federer-Nadal rivalry) as the two went toe-to-toe across Glam Slams. In order to beat arguably the two greatest players, Djokovic fine-tuned his health regimen. His gluten-free diet paved the way for a breakthrough year in 2011. He won 43 out of 44 matches that year, with 3 Slams. He had found an extra gear.
Nadal continued to have the edge over Federer through the first decade of their rivalry. During this phase, there was a set pattern to their match-up. Nadal would keep the pounding Federer’s backhand, till the latter’s single-handed backhand would wilt under Nadal’s relentless forehand topspin barrage. From 2016, the balanced tilted Federer’s way as he transformed his weakness into a weapon. His searing backhand drives were now as much a thing of beauty as they were a weapon. He won the Australian Open in 2017 and followed up with Wimbledon. 2018 saw Federer as World No 1.
2019 marked the beginning of Nadal's transformation as he stormed back with two Grand Slam wins at French Open and US Open and finished the year as World No 1. But he had last beaten either Djokovic or Federer in a Slam finals only back in 2014. In the interim, he had beaten players such as Wawrinka, Andersen, Thiem and Medvedev in Grand Slam finals, but not his two great rivals. Small wonder Djokovic concurred that he was surprised at the level at which Nadal played in the French Open final 2020.
During the post-match press conference, Novak Djokovic beautifully summed up why champions constantly evolve: “In the greatest of defeats, you learn the greatest of lessons.”