2020 French Open: Men’s Final Preview

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, overwhelming 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 quite possibly Nadal’s finest performance at Roland Garros, which sounds like a reach considering that he had already won 12 Grand Slam singles title on the same rectangle of red clay.

But there was nothing unlucky about No. 13. He was on target from the opening game, breaking Djokovic’s serve under the closed roof at the Philippe Chatrier Court. Nadal, 34 years old but still an irresistible force, ripped groundstrokes with depth and purpose, hunted down drop shots, read Djokovic’s mind and serve and kept his unforced errors to a strict minimum. He made just two in the opening set — one of those on the opening point — and 14 in the match, giving his more erratic and increasingly edgy rival little time or space to find his mojo.

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

The most recent of those came at the 2019 Australian Open final, where Djokovic overwhelmed Nadal, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3, in what Djokovic still maintains was the finest performance of his career.

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 on court.

Later, he elaborated. “As you know, I am not a big fan of revenge,” Nadal said. “I just accept when the things are not going the way that I like. In Australia, he played amazing.” He added: “Today was a little bit the opposite.”

Djokovic had not lost a completed match in all of 2020, his only defeat coming in the fourth round of the United States Open when he was disqualified for striking a ball and inadvertently hitting a line umpire in the throat.

Nadal skipped the U.S. Open to focus on Roland Garros, which seemed like a masterstroke on Sunday as he looked fresh, focused and so quick off the mark. Djokovic, a 17-time major singles champion with a 17-10 record in major finals, had never lost a set, 6-0, in a Grand Slam final.

“I thought I was in a great form,” Djokovic said. “Certainly I could have played better, especially in the first two sets. But, you know, just he did surprise me with the way he was playing, the quality of tennis he was producing.”

Djokovic, the bristle-haired and elastic Serb, finished with 52 unforced errors and 38 winners and had his serve broken seven times (he won under 50 percent of his service points). Still, he stuck with many of the patterns that had worked well throughout this tournament and in Rome, where he won the Italian Open last month on clay. But his many drop shots rarely fooled Nadal, who had practiced chasing drop shots extensively ahead of the final.

“I wanted to kind of disrupt his rhythm, obviously,” Djokovic said. “But he was ready. He was there, he was prepared. He was playing all the right shots today.”

That has so often been the case at Roland Garros, and if Sunday’s emphatic victory resembled any other, it was the 2008 final against the No. 1 ranked Federer, which Nadal won, 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 (amazingly, they remain friends).

Djokovic at least generated a suspenseful third set. He battled back from an early break to break Nadal’s serve for the only time in the match, unleashing a fists-clenched roar that is often his way of underscoring that the momentum has shifted.

But Nadal calmly and relentlessly snatched it back. At 5-5, 30-40, Djokovic hit a second serve close to the line that was initially called good but then called out for a double fault after an inspection of the mark by the chair umpire, Damien Dumusois.

Djokovic took a second look and then headed glumly to his chair. Nadal served out the victory at love, finishing with a crisply sliced ace and falling to his knees. Surely not even he imagined beating Djokovic, the second most accomplished clay-court player of Nadal’s era, quite like this.

Nadal and Djokovic have faced each other 56 times: the longest men’s rivalry of 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.”

Nadal 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 respectful 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 not long after that Roland Garros rout.

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

“Of course I care,” Nadal said after long being reluctant to discuss the chase. “I am a big fan of the history of sport in general. For me, it means a lot to share this number with Roger.”

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.

“As my greatest rival over many years, I believe we have pushed each other to become better players,” Federer said on Twitter shortly after Sunday’s final.

Federer called winning the French Open 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.”

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).

Though the outcome in Paris on Sunday was so familiar, this was not a French Open like any other. 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 usual. The crowds were limited to just 1,000 paid spectators per day.

Fiona Olivier, a native of Ireland who has long lived in France, was one of those in attendance for the final after she and her family were selected in the ticket lottery. “We never win anything,” she said. “I thought the atmosphere today was better than when the stadium is full. There were less corporate people. The people who were here were so happy to be at a live event.”

This was also the first French Open to be played with lights and a retractable roof on the main Philippe Chatrier Court, which led to Nadal’s win in his quarterfinal match over Jannik Sinner ending well after midnight. Because of rain in the afternoon on Sunday, the final was played with the roof closed — a first for 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 (see his elaborate prepoint rituals). But he managed to maintain tradition by extending his rule, winning in just 2 hours 41 minutes. That was a veritable sprint considering that he and Djokovic, both supreme defenders and serial ball bouncers before serving, once played for nearly six hours and were unable to stand for the prize ceremony after Djokovic won the 2012 Australian Open final.

“I don’t have a better feeling because I won, 6-0, 6-2, 7-5, than if I won, 6-4 in the fifth, honestly,” Nadal said. “Even maybe it’s a little bit more beautiful to win, 6-4 in the fifth, than winning in straight sets, no?”

That was a thoroughly Nadalian perspective: putting the value on earning the prize, on suffering for it. But the look on his face was still full of delight after winning the championship point — a broad smile, even a hint of a laugh, as he landed on his knees in the red clay that must feel like water to a dolphin at this stage.

And yet there were soon tears in his eyes as the Spanish anthem played. It has been such a tough year for his country and for the wider world. At the least, another Nadal victory shows that the upheaval has its limits.

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

Karen Crouse, in Paris, Matthew Futterman and Ben Rothenberg contributed reporting.