October 12, 2020
Rafael Nadal sank to his knees and let the joy spread across his face.
This was beyond any normal achievement. This was sporting immortality.
A thirteenth Roland Garros title and a record-equalling twentieth Grand Slam had come so naturally.
Novak Djokovic, normally so combative, had only offered fleeting resistance during Rafa’s relentless charge towards victory.
There was the crucial opening game of the match, when a deft and dismissive volley had all but secured a steady start for the Serb. One more point would have put him on the board.
Nadal had other ideas. He battled back with defiant defence, raw aggression and supreme clay-court craft to establish his domination.
The 34-year-old Spaniard took that and every game in a crushing first set.
Djokovic held at the start of the second and his supporters cheered his success. But their hopes were soon dashed as Rafa’s power restored his stranglehold.
Two sets down, we knew Novak had to be able to give more than this.
Stefanos Tsitsipas had drained him severely during their classic semi-final. But Djokovic was always going to put up some kind of fight.
He broke Nadal in the third, only to be broken back. Never has Novak’s serve looked quite so vulnerable as during this extraordinary final.
Hollow-eyed, Djokovic stared in horror at the the confirmation that he double-faulted to hand Rafa the chance to serve for the match.
A sizzling ace completed 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 procession of excellence for the champion.
Thirteen Roland Garros titles is a number that will surely never be beaten. Except perhaps by Nadal himself.
Djokovic acknowledged: ‘Today you showed why you are the King of Clay. I experienced it with my own skin.’
How could anyone have doubted a man who didn’t drop a set all tournament?
Quite easily, because Rafa had been knocked out in the quarter-finals in Rome. He hadn’t moved entirely freely in the earlier stages of the French Open itself.
But slowly and almost imperceptibly, the ring-rust fell away and the formidable super-hero returned, unstoppable as ever here.
Nadal’s victory speech was as beautiful as his tennis. He said: ‘A win here means everything to me. Just to play here is a true inspiration and the love story I have with this city and this court is unforgettable.’
More touching words followed. And they came from Roger Federer, the man Nadal had just joined on twenty Grand Slams.
You wouldn’t expect anything less from Federer. But his graciousness was still immensely moving.
Roger wrote: ‘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 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 in the continuing journey for both of us. Well done, Rafa. You deserve it.’
In that moment of congratulation, you could also sense another message from Federer – this isn’t over.
Roger will hope to go one better, at the Australian Open or Wimbledon 2021.
In the recent past he has won both tournaments in the same year. How Federer would love just one more moment of glory.
But the weekend was all about Rafa. And it was only natural he had the final word.
Nadal said: ‘Thanks to Roger for the words. We have a very, very good relationship. We respect each other a lot and at the same time I think he’s happy when I’m winning and I’m happy when he’s doing things well, no?
‘For me it means a lot, the positive relationship we have together because we have been going through a great rivalry for a very, very long time.
‘In terms of records, of course I care. I am a big fan of the history in sport in general. For me it means a lot to share this record with Roger.
‘But let’s see what’s going on when we finish our careers. At the same time to share this record between us, it’s something in some way beautiful, I really believe.’
From Nadal, that same message to go with all the love. This isn’t over. Let’s see who wins in the end. Let’s see if either of us can go one better.
That’s why Wimbledon 2021 will be so utterly fascinating.
Will Nadal have edged ahead by then? Or will Djokovic be on the verge of joining the “Twenty Club.”
As if there wasnt already enough motivation to win Wimbledon 2021, so much history beckons these all-time-greats now.
In the mean time, let’s congratulate Roland Garros on another great tournament.
And above all let’s congratulate the man of the moment. The History Man. Rafael Nadal.