Lucky 13: 13 Slams, 13 Takeaways
1. A DREAM MATCH IN A NIGHTMARE YEAR: Recently the world has given us one constant: chaos. In tennis we’ve had no Wimbledon, few fans, an odd US Open where, at times, calls for social justice were more prominent than forehand winners. The greatest player of the decade was booted out. At crunch time the Big Three weren’t even in sight.
In the meantime, tennis’ usual spring festival, the French Open, morphed into a frigid fall affair – complete with hard balls, low bounces and shocking upsets. In one match, a French kid, Hugo Gaston, hit 52 drop shots. There were more upsets than cigarette-puffing, espresso-sipping existentialists on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, and Iga Swiatek, a teen from Warsaw whom few had heard of, turned Roland Garros into Poland Garros. Whew! No wonder we’ve got chaos fatigue.
But hold on – the middle usually holds. Sanity has a tendency to prevail, and in tennis, there’s always good ol’ Rafa and Nole. Today, the game returned to its core. If it’s Roland Garros, it’s time for Rafa. His rivalry with Djokovic is the foremost clash of our era. In a nightmare year we had a dream match-up: No. 1 vs. No. 2, the best player of our decade vs. the King of Clay. Under a gleaming Parisian roof, history was on the line.
2. BEST SUMMATION: As Rafa and Novak marched inevitably to the final that so many wanted and expected, Jim Courier summed it all up: “The tournament has a feel like we have two great actors gunning for the Best Actor Academy Award, while everyone else is gunning for Best Supporting Actor.” In the end, Rafa got his award. Throughout the tourney he didn’t lose a set and, in the final, punished Nole 6-0, 6-2, 7-5.
3. BEST SCOUTING REPORT: Mary Carillo once said the only way to beat Nadal was to “hit the lines on every shot.”
4. THE KING OF CLAY: Rafa wears a fancy million-dollar watch. He poses like a mighty admiral on his $6.2 million catamaran. He’s written his own autobiography, has his own museum and a string of tennis academies. You’d think, just maybe, he’d be a bit of a jerk.
Wrong. Jon Wertheim reported that he overheard one security guard in a players’ lounge tell his partner, “There’s the guy who’s always saying. ‘Thank you.’” His friend replied, “Yeah, that’s Rafa Nadal.”
Is there a greater gentleman sportsman around these days? He tells us we must be humble – that we all have to suffer. He tells us that doubt is good – and arrogance is not. Don’t even think about trying to get him to say he’s the King of Clay or the best of all time.
An early favorite to win the Kentucky Derby, Sebastian Korda’s cat, a center court in Barcelona and an asteroid in space are all named after Nadal. Splendid! His foes like Rafa too, but not the beatings he imposes. John Millman described playing against him: “It’s relentless abuse. It’s like a boxing match where you’re getting hit again and again.” Stefanos Tsitsipas confided, “He has a talent to make you play bad…I felt empty in the brain.” Fabio Fognini mused, “If I had to use just one word I would say ‘savage.’ A volcano energy explosion guided by discipline and method.”
We all know that Nadal was born for clay. Man and surface blend in harmony. His rituals are legendary. He snarls and explodes, slides and blasts. Michael Mewshaw claimed, “He’s half bull, half bullfighter, who displays an on-court, testosterone-driven truculence.”
Rafa’s fabled “Take that, Roger!” topspin forehand pins foes. “His ball,” claimed Brett Haber, “has so many RPMs on it that it creates its own wind.” The man dashes to the corners, full of intent. His sprints seem like bolts of fury. He takes your time away, your confidence evaporates. Defense to offense is his religion. His muscles have muscles, his wrists have might, his flicks are fierce. He commands the court. I once shook his hand – it felt like a vice grip.
Today he took all the vinegar out of his great rival. Retrieving Djokovic’s wicked drop shots seemed like a fun adventure. He’d lost to Novak in Melbourne in 2019, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3. Today he said, “I am not a big fan of revenges.” Still, his rout had to feel sweet. “This isn’t a match,” noted John McEnroe. “I can’t believe what I’m seeing. Everything Nadal is touching is turning to gold.” On court, Djokovic wasn’t his explosive self. Except for a brief third-set flurry, he seemed dejected and almost resigned to his fate. He said, “Rafa surprised me…He’s phenomenal. He played a perfect match, especially in the first two sets…No holding him back…Rafa has proven everybody [who thought the conditions would impair him] wrong. That’s why he’s a great champion.”
5. LUCKY 13: It took exactly 13:13 for Rafa to reach the Roland Garros finals, where he hoped to gain his 13th French Open. Thirteen is said to be the most wretched of numbers. Most high-rise buildings don’t even have a 13th floor. Judas was the 13th guest at the Last Supper. Then again, America began with 13 colonies. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery. And some say Zeus, the 13th Greek god, was the most powerful.
6. GREATEST OF ALL TIME: For about the past decade, we’ve been living through the most intriguing three-way race tennis has ever seen. Federer has long been said to be the greatest of all time. Early on, he broke out and surpassed Pete Sampras. From 2003 to 2009 Roger won 15 of 25 Grand Slam tournaments. He’s second behind Jimmy Connors when it comes to tourneys won, and he’s been No. 1 for a record 310 weeks. Plus, some give him points for the beauty of his game, for forcing everyone to get better and, what the heck, because he’s such an incredible ambassador.
But first Nadal and then Djokovic countered with a serious game of catch up. Nadal equaling Federer’s mark of 20 Slams only makes things more interesting. Nadal has a commanding 24-16 record over Roger, he’s dominated clay and has had key wins over Roger on grass. Djokovic has a 29-27 edge over Nadal and 27-23 record over Roger, has earned more prize money than either of them, is younger, and should soon break Roger’s record for weeks at No. 1. Plus, Novak is a more consistent threat on all surfaces. The Big 3 have won 53 of the last 62 Slams and held the No. 1 ranking for 808 of the last 849 weeks.
7. THE MANY WORLDS OF NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Some greats focused just on tennis: think Ivan Lendl, Steffi Graf and Pete Sampras. Djokovic, the deep-thinking, gluten-free, mountain-climbing author and meditator, is hardly that type. The world No. 1 and the best player of our decade told us, “My biggest interest is to keep on exploring the possibilities of my existence on this planet…It’s not only about winning a match. You can’t take trophies to your grave.” Of late, Novak has been a busy fellow. As an ATP Council activist he ousted the group’s popular CEO, supported an ally who got into a violent fight and created a rival player association.
He spearheaded a fundraising exhibition in Serbia that became a COVID spreader, caught the coronavirus, claimed you could drink poisoned water if you had the right thoughts and defaulted out of the US Open.
Pam Shriver said, “You can only do so much as a human being before you get stretched too far, and what I’ve noticed…is that Novak has been angry, and has been not quite himself. Even though his game has been quite on point, I never felt his temperament or his mindset was quite right.” Djokovic himself noted, “I complicate my life.”
Being defaulted out of the US Open had to be a deeply troubling trauma for this sensitive Serbian soul. It probably cost him an invaluable Slam, perhaps over $3 million and significant standing in the public. Still, Jim Courier noted, “Djokovic was a professional even when he was an amateur.” And Nole’s backers sing his praises.
Once, after meeting the competitive Djokovic, Kobe Bryant compared the two of them: “Different animal, same beast.” Serb Janko Tipsarevic said Djokovic’s greatness was not because he came from poverty, but because, “He wants to be the best of all time and nothing else, and is willing to do whatever it takes…Nothing else satisfies his hunger. You saw this with LeBron, Kobe, Renaldo and Muhammed Ali.” But today Nadal’s brilliance doused Nole’s fire.
8. BEST MATCH STATISTICS: Rafa is 13-0 in French Open finals, has 100-2 record and is 26-0 when he reaches the semis. Today he created 18 break opportunities and capitalized on 7. He won 50% of first serve return points and had only 14 unforced errors. Djokovic made 52 errors, converted one of five break points and, perhaps most stunning of all, won only nine second-serve return points. In 2020 Djokovic is 37-2 with four titles, including the Australian Open
9. GREATEST SPORTS RECORDS: How should we compare Rafa’s incredible 13 wins at the French Open with other stunning marks? Chris Evert claimed 125 clay court matches in a row. Steffi Graf won the Golden Slam in 1988 – all four majors and the Olympic gold. Michael Phelps won eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 23 gold overall. Bill Russell won 11 NBA championships and New York Yankee Joe DiMaggio got a hit in 56 straight games.
10. REALLY RUGGED ROUTS: Rafa’s 2:42 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 win today obviously wasn’t as lopsided as Steffi Graf’s 1988 6-0, 6-0 over Natasha Zvereva, or Rafa’s 2008 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 domination of Federer. Other one-sided men’s French finals have been Guillermo Vilas’ 6-0, 6-3, 6-0 win over Brian Gottfried in 1977 and Bjorn Borg’s 6-1, 6-1, 6-3 1978 win over Vilas.
11. WORDS OF A CHAMPION: In his post-match press conference Nadal noted, “I played at my highest level when I needed to, so something I’m very proud of. The personal satisfaction is big.” As for the GOAT race and Federer, he said, “I would love to finish my career being the player with more Grand Slams. No doubt about that, no? But on the other hand I say, ‘Okay, I have to do my way…[and] follow my road, try my best every single day.’ In terms of these records, of course I care. I am a big fan of the history of sport in general…For me it means a lot to share this number with Roger, no?” As usual he was humble: “Doubts are part of the life. I always say the same, no? For me doubts are good because it means that you don’t consider yourself too good.”
12. THE GLEEFUL GRIN THAT WARMED HEARTS AROUND THE WORLD: Just how wonderful was it to see the triumph of a beloved athlete at a time of such sorrow? Rafa’s gleeful grin when he won warmed hearts around the world. It was just what many a fan needed. Simon Cambers quipped, “It’s the most normal thing to happen since March.” Nadal told the thin crowd, “We are facing one of the worst moments that we remember facing, and fighting against this virus. Just keep going, stay positive. We will go through this and defeat it…In some ways, [this celebration is] not that happy because we can’t celebrate in a normal way. I really hope in June we will be able to celebrate this amazing, beautiful new stadium with a full crowd here in Philippe Chatrier. So au revoir and merci beaucoup.”
13. YOU GOTTA HAVE HEART: After winning his 100th Roland Garros match and his 13th title, Nadal kissed the beloved Coupe des Mousquetaires through his mask, cuddled the trophy and teared up as Spain’s national anthem sounded. So we ask, what, in the end, makes this man so special? Tiger Woods responded, “It’s his heart. It’s as simple as that.”
Also reporting: Douglas Hochmuth and Frances Aubrey