Few things are as inevitable in modern tennis as Rafael Nadal lifting the Musketeer’s Cup in June. Before last week, it had happened 13 times in the last 17 years and not once had the Spaniard reached the final and ended up finishing second-best. 13 times in the summit clash, 13 wins.
The same cannot be said of the Mallorcan’s fortunes at the Australian Open, where Novak Djokovic, and Roger Federer before the World No. 1 came along to make Melbourne Park his own, is seen as the de-facto winner.
This year, however, it was Nadal who came out on top at the Rod Laver Arena as well. For only the second time in his career, the World No. 5 got his hands on the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup, becoming only the second player in ATP history to complete the Double Career Grand Slam, less than a year after Djokovic achieved the same.
Nearly 100 days later, the southpaw extended his lead in the Slam race over Federer and Djokovic by two, sinking his teeth into the French Open title for the 14th time. What was really surprising about the triumph on Court Philippe-Chatrier this year was that the 22-time Grand Slam champion was almost as much of a non-favorite as he is in Australia normally.
Coming into the French Open without any clay titles to his name, the 36-year-old was not expected to go all the way in Paris this year. Even the most ardent of fans will admit that Nadal's chances of being the last man standing in the City of Love were remote at best. Just as it was at the Australian Open back in January.
And yet, the veteran made it happen in both countries against all odds. The final in Australia lasted five hours and 24 minutes, while the one in Paris lasted a mere two hours and 18 minutes. While the Spaniard had to come from two sets down against Daniil Medvedev to mount a comeback for the ages, he lost just six games against Casper Ruud in the latter.
The final at the Melbourne Major was a statement victory by a champion who made use of every last bit of resurgence he had stored inside him. The final at Roland Garros, meanwhile, felt like an eventuality by the time Sunday rolled around.
Rafael Nadal beating Novak Djokovic in Paris has dispeled the accusations that have followed his Australian Open triumph
Then there is the little matter with Novak Djokovic. The Serb’s absence at the Australian Open, where he was the three-time defending champion, due to a controversial visa fiasco meant that Nadal’s title there was asterisked by some of the World No. 1’s fans.
Of course, it is only a minority opinion and will not do anything to sully the official records, But all the drama that happened in Australia certainly did enough to slightly dampen the World No. 4’s celebrations.
At the French Open, however, no such accusations can be made. Djokovic was very much present in Paris, and was even seen as the title favorite following his triumph at the Italian Open earlier that month. The 22-time Grand Slam champion did not avoid his arch-rival this time around, but beat him handsomely in four sets in the quarterfinals in what turned out to be one of the matches of the tournament.
In many ways, it can be compared to the final against Medvedev, for the Paris quarterfinal was seen by many as the final before the final. Whoever between Nadal and Djokovic prevailed was expected to be the eventual winner, and that turned out to be the case after all.
Against both Medvedev and Djokovic, it wasn't as if the 36-year-old played flawlessly. The encounter against the Russian required Nadal to stay patient and not lose his nerves even when he was on the verge of defeat. While he never reached the same stage against the Serb, there was a point at the end of the second set where things could have turned disastrous for him.
Just like last year, Djokovic took the second set after losing the first and looked in slightly better touch than the Spaniard. A weaker man than Nadal, a man with lesser self-assurance, a man who was not strong-willed enough to keep the ghosts of the past under check, would have caved just under pressure. But not the southpaw. Not at the French Open two years in a row.
This time, Nadal did not let go. This time, he stayed with Djokovic shot for shot, ignoring everything his foot was telling him. This time, it was Nadal doing what he has done a hundred times in the past, but now in the biggest match of his career -- playing every point like his last.
Uncharacteristically, Djokovic could not, for once in his career, muster the monstrous energy he needed to match the man standing in front of him. Even if he had, it might not have mattered. We will never know, and we don't have to.
The subsequent semifinal encounter against Alexander Zverev, where the German suffered a freak injury in the second set and was forced to retire, could be seen as a lucky break for the Mallorcan. Maybe. But let's not forget that he was leading the match at that point and had showcased just how far he was willing to fight only in the previous tiebreak.
It was the same spirit he showcased against Denis Shapovalov in the quarterfinals and against Matteo Berrettini in the semifinals Down Under. In both contests, the 22-time Major winner went through periods of lull and allowed his opponents to come back into the game. But when it mattered the most, he stepped up. Just like he has done time and again over the last decade and a half.
For all the historic reasons, Rafael Nadal's 2022 Australian Open triumph is more important than the French Open win. But for practical purposes, both victories were just as essential. While the former helped show the Spaniard that he still has his mojo, even after six months on the sidelines, the latter is vital to reaffirm that faith in himself once more.
And while the January victory was more akin to the Mallorcan sneaking through the back door, the June triumph was Nadal throwing open the doors, throwing down the gauntlet and saying he was here to stay.