How Rafael Nadal Won The French Open – The New York Times

Rafael Nadal won the French Open title, beating Novak Djokovic in straight sets.

Neither Novak Djokovic nor Roger Federer could resist Rafael Nadal on Sunday.

Nadal made astonishingly quick work of them both in the French Open final, annihilating Djokovic, the world’s No. 1 player, 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 to equal Federer’s record of 20 Grand Slam singles titles.

It was arguably Nadal’s finest performance at Roland Garros, which is quite a statement considering that he had already won 12 Grand Slam singles title on the same rectangle of red clay.

There was nothing unlucky about No. 13. He was on task and on target from the very start against Djokovic, ripping groundstrokes winners, running down drop shots and keeping his unforced errors to a strict minimum. He made just two in the opening set, giving Djokovic little time or space to find his range.

Djokovic, the 2016 French Open champion, is one of only two men to beat Nadal at Roland Garros. He had beaten Nadal in their last three Grand Slam finals against one another.

The most recent of those came at the 2019 Australian Open, where Djokovic overwhelmed Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 in what Djokovic still maintains was the finest performance of his career. Nadal could only purse his lips, shake his head and say “too good.”

But that rout took place on a hardcourt, Djokovic’s best surface, at the major tournament he has won most often. Sunday’s payback came in Nadal’s kingdom.

“Sorry for today,” Nadal said to Djokovic in his post-victory remarks. “In Australia he killed me. It’s clear today was for me. That’s part of the game. We’ve played plenty of times together.”

This was not a French Open like any other, however. It was moved from the spring to the autumn because of the coronavirus pandemic, making for cooler temperatures that rendered Nadal’s topspin forehand less lively than in the past. The crowds were limited to just 1,000 paid spectators per day at Roland Garros.

It was also the first French Open to be played with a retractable roof and lights, which meant that Nadal had to win his quarterfinal match over Jannik Sinner well after midnight. Because of rain in the afternoon on Sunday, the final was played with the roof closed — a first in the history of the tournament, which was first played at Roland Garros in 1928.

That is a great deal of change to process for a champion like Nadal, who thrives on routine. But he managed to maintain tradition by extending his rule and ending his losing streak against Djokovic.

“Everybody knows this court is the most important court in my tennis career,” Nadal said, before striking a more somber tone.

“We are under very tough circumstances,” he said, a mask on his face. “In some ways it’s not that happy because we can’t celebrate the tournament in a normal way.”

He added: “I really hope that in a couple of months when we will be back here, hopefully in June, we will be able to celebrate this amazing, new, beautiful stadium with a full crowd.”

Nadal and Djokovic have faced each other 56 times: more than any other men have faced each other on tour in the Open era. Djokovic leads by the narrow margin of 29-27.

“Today, you showed why you are the king of clay,” Djokovic said during the awards ceremony. “I experienced it in my own skin. It was a very tough match. I’m obviously not so pleased with the way I played, but I was definitely overplayed by a better player today.”

Nadal, 34, did not drop a set in seven matches, and Sunday’s victory was his 100th in a match at Roland Garros. That would certainly have been the number of the day if not for Federer’s record.

Nadal and Federer have been friendly rivals for more than a decade, playing some of the most memorable matches in the game’s long history, including their classic 2008 Wimbledon final, won by Nadal in five sets.

But Federer, 39, is nearly five years older than Nadal and has always been ahead of him in the Grand Slam chase. Until Sunday.

The Grand Slam singles record has become the most significant reference point in the game in this era with Federer, Nadal and Djokovic dominating the men’s game and pushing each other to improve their games and extend their careers.

“I have always had the utmost respect for my friend Rafa as a person and as a champion,” Federer said on Twitter shortly after Sunday’s final. “As my greatest rival over many years, I believe we have pushed each other to become better players.”

Federer called winning the French Cup 13 times “one of the greatest achievements in sport.” He added: “I hope 20 is just another step on the continuing journey for both of us. Well done, Rafa. You deserve it.”

Nadal’s 20th title will deepen the conversation about who deserves to be considered the greatest men’s player of the Open era and perhaps even in the history of the sport (although that is a much more difficult comparison to make).

Nadal was not eager to have that conversation on Sunday.

“I don’t think today about the 20th,” he said. “Today for me 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 in my tennis career. No doubt about that.”

Djokovic takes a 5-4 lead in the third set.

Djokovic’s emotional engagement in this match has continued to rise, as has his willingness to take chances.

Serving at 4-4, down a break point, Djokovic fired a brave 116 m.p.h. second serve at Nadal’s backhand, his fastest second serve of the match.

Djokovic held two points later, putting himself within one game of winning the third set and turning this rout into a bona fide battle.

Djokovic finally breaks Nadal’s serve.

Djokovic, long considered the sport’s best returner, finally broke Nadal’s serve in his 10th return game of the match, leveling the third set at 3-3.

Djokovic got some help from Nadal, who missed five of eight first serves in the game, but also asserted himself with more purposeful play, including a backhand winner to seal the break.

Djokovic uncorked some emotion following the break — he has been relatively contained throughout this match.

Djokovic took a 4-3 lead a game later, following a strong serve to net and putting away a short return with a short drop volley.

Djokovic is starting to make some uncharacteristic errors. Nadal leads 3-2.

After holding serve three times in a row, Djokovic dumped his serve despondently in the fifth game of the third set, hitting three unforced errors to allow Nadal to break to love and extend his lead to 6-0, 6-2, 3-2.

Nadal is now three games from his 13th Grand Slam title. He has only faced three break points in the entire match — all three in the fourth game of the first set. Nadal still won that game.

Djokovic had broken serve at least six times in each of his previous wins at this year’s French Open; he is still seeking his first today.

Djokovic is picking it up on his serve and leads 2-1 in the third set.

Djokovic got off to a positive start in the third set with a hold, just his third game of the match. And after holding serve in his final service game of the second set, it marked two consecutive holds of serve — not usually a feat that deserves celebration for a top-ranked player, but that’s the kind of day it has been for Djokovic.

After holding, Nadal earned a break point chance in Djokovic’s second service game of the third set, but uncharacteristically missed a backhand, and then missed another on Djokovic’s game point.

After being the much more precise player early on, Nadal has hit four unforced errors already in this third set. Not usually a big deal, but he only hit six unforced errors in the first two sets combined.

Nadal is playing about as good as it gets.

The best tennis player in the world, in a year when he finishes the year at No. 1, wins no more than 55 percent of the points he plays. Dominance in tennis is a lot more subtle than most people realize.

But there is nothing subtle about what Nadal is doing to Djokovic. During the first two sets, Nadal has won 66 points to 44 for Djokovic. In the second set, it was 34-25. That is about as dominant as a player can be, especially against the best player in the world.

Djokovic had a plan — use a backhand drop shot to Nadal’s backhand. Nadal knew this was coming and he is playing that way.

As Mike Tyson used to say, everyone has a plan until they smacked in the mouth. Nadal has smacked Djokovic in the mouth. Does Djokovic have a Plan B?

Nadal wins the second set 6-2.

The drop shot has been one of Djokovic’s primary weapons during this French Open — a smart choice based on the heavy, low-bouncing conditions in October.

He hit more than 140 coming into the final and has not deviated from that plan against Nadal. But he has had only limited success.

He has hit a handful of winners but also experienced plenty of disappointment. Nadal so far has covered the shot effectively, hitting several winners off it, including two crisply sliced backhand winners that let Djokovic shaking his head.

But then there has been a lot of head shaking in these first two sets, and Nadal is one set away from ending it.

Yes, we’re still checking ball marks in 2020.

French chair umpire Damien Dumusois down from his perch on a couple of occasions already to verify ball marks to determine whether shots were in or out. That is the longstanding tradition at Roland Garros and all clay-court events.

But change could be on the way. The FoxTenn electronic line-judging system was tested at the Rio Open earlier this year and was set to be used at the Mutua Madrid Open before that tournament was canceled. The French Open has negotiated with FoxTenn in the past without taking the plunge.

For now, the sport has been left in an imperfect place with chair umpires still examining ball marks and making the final calls while television networks, like NBC and Tennis Channel, use Hawk-Eye replays to check the chair umpires, even though the Hawk-Eye system is not yet approved for official use on clay.

Nadal goes up another break for a 2-1 lead in the second set.

Djokovic got on the board by winning the first game of the second set, but he’s still no match for Nadal’s consistency. Through nine games, Djokovic has hit 21 unforced errors, compared to just three for Nadal.

Nadal quickly went after Djokovic’s serve again in the third game.

Djokovic saved two break points — the first by hitting each sideline on consecutive shots and the second with a crosscourt backhand that landed behind Nadal.

But the third break point was Nadal’s after Djokovic twisted a forehand into the net.

Djokovic is hurting himself with his serve placement.

It goes without saying that Nadal is crushing Djokovic’s spirit by dominating his serve, but the problem may have more to do with Djokovic than with Nadal.

Throughout the tournament, Nadal has continued to receive serves from far behind the baseline, even as other players have crept closer into the court to take advantage of the slower, heavier ball.

The way to punish an opponent who is standing so far back is to send them a serve out wide, so that he is in a terrible position to get into the point after the return. But Djokovic’s serve, especially his second serve, is not going anywhere near the lines, giving Nadal a chance to tee off on the ball and switch from defense to offense early in the point.

That’s how you end up winning just 10 of 22 points on first serve and seven of 16 on second serve through four service games.

Nadal dominates in the opening set and wins it 6-0.

An extraordinary start for Nadal gets more extraordinary as he saves two break points on his serve to hold and then breaks Djokovic for the third time in the set, this time from 40-0.

He then held on his serve to win the first set, 6-0.

Nadal’s ball striking is crisp, his movement remarkable and his judgment close-to-impeccable at this early stage.

His 5-0 lead left Djokovic shaking his head and puffing out his cheeks even after he won points. The pressure is intense, and a lot of his playbook is in tatters, including his heavy reliance on the drop shot.

Djokovic had not previously lost a set 6-0 in a Grand Slam final. During the break, several fans serenaded him in Serbian, in hopes of lifting him up for the second set.

The one place Nadal has not had success early on is at net, winning just three of eight points so far when brought forward in the court. He also has only won seven of 15 rallies that have extended to nine or more shots.

Nadal gained an early 3-0 edge by winning twice on Djokovic’s serve.

Nadal drew first blood in this French Open final, breaking Djokovic in the opening game of the match. Djokovic showed a heavy reliance on his drop shot during the first game, hitting them early in rallies with mixed success as Nadal pounced for an opening break.

Djokovic then drew from 40-15 to deuce on Nadal’s following service game, but Nadal consolidated the break with a hold.

Nadal furthered his lead to a double break one game later, going up 3-0 as Djokovic’s cross-court backhand hit the net on Nadal’s second break point of the game.

The new roof on the stadium is closed because of rain.

With a bit of rainy weather, the roof on Phillipe Chatrier Court is closed for the men’s final. There are so few fans that the rain can be heard pelting the roof.

According to French Open policy, a match that begins with a closed roof must continue with a closed roof, even if it is sunny outside.

That makes this the first French Open final to be played indoors. But is this truly indoors?

The new roof is more of a canopy, allowing outside air to flow inside and having little effect on the temperature. But it does have two big effects: cutting down the wind and eliminating the shadows that have been an issue for players during late-afternoon matches in these unusual October dates (the shadows would not be present during the same time and in the same place if the tournament was staged in its normal May and June window).

The lack of wind should help Djokovic, whose flatter strokes have less margin for error than Nadal’s, and he also has relied heavily on the drop shot in this tournament.

But this is still red clay at Roland Garros, where Nadal’s record is second to none: 99-2.

This French Open looked far different than usual because of the coronavirus.

Usually held in late May and early June with tens of thousands of fans in attendance each day, the French Open made the aggressive move in mid-March to reschedule to late September and early October, unilaterally claiming a spot on the tennis calendar without consulting other tennis governing bodies.

The bold move has paid off, as the tournament was able to proceed, but not at full strength. Organizers initially hoped to have as many as 11,500 paying fans in attendance each day, but public health protocols eventually slashed that number to 1,000.

Matches at Roland Garros have had more atmosphere than those at the U.S. Open, which was completely closed off to paying spectators, but there are still more than 10,000 seats sitting empty inside Philippe Chatrier Court.

The fans inside the arena have worn masks during the matches, though they are usually clumped together in the prime seats, rather than taking advantage of the considerable elbow room available elsewhere. Pandemic protocols in Paris have tightened during the tournament, including closures of cafes and restaurants, but the tournament has played on.

The men’s tennis tour will return to Paris later this month for the Paris Indoors Masters event, which begins on Oct. 31.

Max Gendler contributed reporting.