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King of Clay Conquers Again

Rafael Nadal inflicted one of the most humiliating defeats on his Big Three rival and World No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the French Open final, thrashing him 6-06-27-5 to lift a record-equaling 20th Grand Slam men’s singles title. Nadal showed exemplary athleticism to get his incredible 13th French crown and boost his credentials for the Greatest of All Time (GOAT). Federer, 39, missed the U.S. and French Opens but will be back at the Australian Open next year.


Intensifying Conquest

In this unusual, surreal 2020, Rafael Nadal carved out a remarkable piece of history by winning a 20th grand slam title to equal pal and fellow “Big Three” member Roger Federer’s men’s record.

• He did so by beating the other elite group member, Novak Djokovic, 6-0 6-2 7-5, in the French Open final under the roof on Philippe Chatrier Court amid Paris’ late afternoon autumnal chill. Nadal sunk to his knees after an ace on championship point in a surprisingly lopsided conclusion to the fortnight.

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• But this is indeed Nadal on clay. He said the tournament’s new balls and cold weather don’t favor his massive spin game. The coronavirus pandemic prompted organizers to move the event from its usual late May start but the 34-year-old Spaniard overcame the conditions a 13th Roland Garros crown and 100th match win.

• The drop shots on the slow clay courts served Djokovic well in earlier rounds, and he used plenty of them in his opening game on Sunday, but Nadal ran most of them down, blunting the Serbian’s weapon and gameplan. Djokovic struggled with his first serve and was unable to develop a Plan B as Nadal continued to be the aggressor while making just two unforced errors in the opening set to hand his opponent a rare zero in the opening set.


The grind never stops, even for NADAL

The statistics don’t reflect it, but this was supposed to be the most intricate French Open for the unbeatable clay champion.

  • The pandemic forced the cancellation of the entire spring Euroclay season, one Nadal annually dominates. However, the lack of seasoning was just the front end of a one-two punch Nadal absorbed because of the pandemic. The second setback was the four-month postponement of Roland Garros, which guaranteed it would be played under the current, chilly autumn conditions.
  • Bulletin-board material when he told reporters in Rome a week ago, “Nadal prefers high bounces, that it is hot, that the ball goes fast. It’s going to be interesting. I think even though he’s the No. 1 favorite, some players can win against him there.” Nadal’s response, “Yeah, 100 percent true. I have always been beatable on clay. He beat me a lot of times. But, at the same time, iI indeed had a lot of success on this surface.”
  • This year’s switch to Wilson balls (a deal struck before the pandemic hit) is also proving problematic. According to Nadal and defending runner-up Dominic Thiem, the Wilson ball absorbs too much moisture and attracts the coarse, granular top dressing on the court. The ball fluffs up and becomes heavy. Nadal said he has had to cut practices short for fear of hurting his shoulder or elbow. Under wet and damp conditions, Nadal’s powerful topspin shots were not expected to jump as high or penetrate through the court, factors that usually enable him to dictate a match.
  • Analysts thought their theory was working when Diego Schwartzman recorded his first win against Nadal in 10 tries in Rome just a week before Paris. The winner called the match his “best,” but Nadal’s game was off the rails. He made 30 unforced errors, allowed five service breaks, and made just 27 of 63 first serves, raising a sudden flurry of speculation around his chances in Paris. Nadal’s reaction: “We can make excuses, but I didn’t play well enough.” • There was also that matter of world No. 1 Djokovic. He had taken the lead in their career series (29-26) and won half of their past 10 matches on clay. Djokovic was on fire before the pandemic hit, with his only loss on his 32-match record of 2020 being the infamous default he was issued at the US Open. He had regained his momentum, putting away Schwartzman in straight sets in Rome to eclipse Nadal as the all-time leader in Masters 1000 titles (Djokovic now has 36). He also passed Pete Sampras on the all-time list.
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