Revealed: Nadal’s insane record as GOAT debate rages
The 2020 French Open featured new dates, new balls and a new roof, but still the same old men's singles champion as Rafael Nadal claimed a remarkable 13th trophy at Roland Garros to draw level with his great rival Roger Federer on 20 grand-slam titles.
Nadal had expressed concern two weeks ago about the unique challenges he faced in Paris this year, yet still he ended the tournament without dropping a single set in seven matches. The Spaniard saved the best for last, comfortably seeing off his arch-nemesis Novak Djokovic, the 17-times grand-slam champion from Serbia, 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 in a two-hour-and-41-minute final.
Fittingly, Nadal's victory against Djokovic marks a milestone 100th win overall in 102 matches at Roland Garros. For many years, there have been downbeat predictions over how long his career could last with such a physical style of play, yet at 34 he remains so difficult to overcome over the best-of-five sets on clay.
The plaudits quickly flowed for one of tennis's greatest achievements. Within an hour of the match ending, Federer - absent in Paris this year because of his recovery from knee surgery - issued the most important congratulatory message of all on social media, reflecting the friendship that he and Nadal have built despite their tumultuous battles on the court over the past 16 years.
Federer referred to Nadal as his greatest rival, saying it was an honour to congratulate the Spaniard on pulling level with him for grand-slam titles. He said that Nadal's 13 French Open wins was one of the great achievements in sport.
Nadal now takes over the mantle of favourite to be considered the greatest male player of all time, whenever the last member of the "big three" turns off the lights. Throughout this fortnight he repeatedly preferred not to discuss the prospect, until last night when he admitted his urge to finish with the most major trophies.
At almost five years younger than Federer - who turns 40 in August - few would bet against him, although Djokovic, 33, will no doubt do his utmost to catch up.
"I would love to finish my career being the player with more grand-slams," Nadal said. "There is no doubt about that. In terms of these records, of course I care.
"I am a big fan of the history of sport in general. I respect that a lot. For me it means a lot to share this number with Roger.
"But let's see what's going on when we finish our careers. I don't know what can happen in the future. I am just excited. We share this record between us, and we had an amazing rivalry for such a long time. It is something that is in some way beautiful, I really believe."
It is hard to recall a men's singles grand-slam final that had so much historical significance attached to it. While the prospect of a record-equalling 20th grand-slam trophy for Nadal was the obvious top line, Djokovic had the chance to become the first man to win all four major tournaments twice in the open era.
And when the Court Philippe Chatrier roof closed shortly before the match because of rain, many pundits swayed in favour of Djokovic, who is notoriously strong indoors when there is a smaller margin for error with his flat groundstrokes.
The early stages of the final did not back up this theory. Djokovic, serving poorly and dumping far too many drop shots into the net, did not win a single game in a 45-minute first set, with Nadal dominating in all departments. It was the first time that the opening set of a men's singles grand-slam final had been won 6-0 since Federer claimed a "bagel" against Nadal in the 2006 Wimbledon final.
Djokovic finally got on the board for 1-0 in the second set but he was still repeatedly outfoxed by his opponent in most rallies and bizarrely persisted with his largely unsuccessful use of the drop shot. Nadal, on the other hand, was near flawless, hitting only six unforced errors to Djokovic's 29 as he moved two sets up.
There was a chink of light for Djokovic's fans midway through the third set when he claimed a break of serve for the first time to level for 3-3 and let out a loud roar to fire himself up. This was as good as it got for him, though, as Nadal claimed another break for 6-5 and then, with history beckoning, effortlessly served out one of his greatest victories to love with a swinging left-handed ace out wide.
"I was completely outplayed by Rafa, the better player on the court." Djokovic said.
"He was not missing at all and getting every ball back, just playing great tactically. He played a perfect match, especially in the first two sets.
"I admire all his achievements, especially the one here. It's stunning results and records that he's got on this court. All the superlatives you can use, he deserves them."
Nadal has played only five tournaments as part of the decimated schedule this year but it seems as if his season could already be over. In an indication that he has one eye on January's Australian Open, where he can overtake Federer's grand-slam tally, it appears that he will focus on preparations for Melbourne - which requires two weeks of quarantine in December - rather than next month's ATP Finals behind closed doors in London.
"It doesn't make sense to speak about the ATP Finals because I really don't know if I am going to play it or not," Nadal said. "It is a conversation I need to have with my family and team during the next couple of days. Now is the moment to be smart and make the right decisions in every single moment."
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I have always had the utmost respect for my friend Rafa as a person and as a champion. As my greatest rival over many years, I believe we have pushed each other to become better players. Therefore, it is a true honor for me to congratulate him on his 20th Grand Slam victory. It is especially amazing that he has now won Roland Garros an incredible 13 times, which is one of the greatest achievements in sport. I also congratulate his team, because nobody can do this alone. I hope 20 is just another step on the continuing journey for both of us. Well done, Rafa. You deserve it.
FEDERER'S TRIBUTE TO RIVAL
Roger Federer posted the following message on social media, along with a picture of himself with Nadal: "I have always had the utmost respect for my friend Rafa as a person and as a champion. As my greatest rival over many years, I believe we have pushed each other to become better players. Therefore, it is a true honour for me to congratulate him on his 20th grand-slam victory. It is especially amazing that he has now won Roland Garros an incredible 13 times, which is one of the greatest achievements in sport. I also congratulate his team, because nobody can do this alone. I hope 20 is just another step on the continuing journey for both of us. Well done, Rafa. You deserve it."
Originally published as Revealed: Nadal's insane record as GOAT debate rages