24 October 2020

Nadal-Federer, 20-20 and beyond

Rafael Nadal defeated world number 1 Novak Djokovic in a surprisingly one-sided French Open final (6-0, 6-2, 7-5) to win his 13th (!!) title at Roland Garros and also equal Roger Federer for the most Grand Slam singles championships (20).

Rafa has owned the French Open, putting together streaks of four on two occasions (2005-2008, 2017-2020) and a five-in-a-row as well (2010-2014). Maybe Novak had a bad day at the office. After all, he was unbeaten this year, apart from the unfortunate disqualification at the US Open and  had an overall 29-26 edge over Rafa including 14 of the last 18.

This however was Roland Garros and if it could have a synonym then it has to be Rafael Nadal. Quite apart from the number of titles, it was here that he won four majors without dropping a set (2008, 2010, 2017 and 2020); Bjorn Borg has three, Federer two, Ilie Nastase and Ken Rosewall one each.

He didn’t talk of records. Not the 13 titles in Roland Garros, not the record-tying 20 grand slam championships. And yet the champion captured the history beautifully: ‘The love story that I have with this city, and with this court, is unforgettable.’ He added, ‘I spent here the most important moments -- or most of the important moments -- in my tennis career.’

Great win. Great moment. Historic. Moving. Rafael Nadal’s night. All that.
Then we had Federer’s reaction.

‘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.’

Words. Easy ones. And yet, we’ve seen these two champions talk of each other before, the rivalry and the respect. There’s a touch of optimism in Federer’s response but that’s what a champion is all about — plays to win, always. Rafa is a couple of years younger and Roger hasn’t won a grand slam in quite a while. And then there’s Novak. He has 17 titles and appears to have a lot more gas in his tank. 

Champions all. They’ve dominated the sport unlike any other three men in history. Perhaps Roger is right, not just about his rivalry with Rafa but the rivalry all three have with each other. They are all hard working, determined, never-give-up sportsmen absolutely focused on the game. Such athletes spur each other on. Fifty seven grand slams titles between them. Fifty seven! That’s dominance of the rarest kind.

Of course there will be talk of ‘The Greatest’ or rather who the greatest is or will be (by the time all three retire). Roger’s early start and Novak’s late(r) finish will be factored in. Rafa’s French-heavy record will be pointed out. The score when all three played will be mentioned. Interesting, no doubt.

At some level, numbers don’t tell the entire story. And the best stories resist number and category. We get them as subtext and silence, in a glance and with a half-smile and who knows what else?

For now, there’s Rafa and the numbers 13 and 20. There’s Novak with the number 17 and Roger with his 20. More than these, however, is the love affair that Rafael Nadal has with a city and a court, and an observation from a friend and rival about how they became better players.

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