There was a special aura at Court Philippe Chatrier, even as people inside wore masks to protect themselves from the deadly virus the air around it carried, as Rafael Nadal walked onto his kingdom. It was a kingdom he had built his evergreen legacy around, and one that he had to defend against his greatest nemesis Novak Djokovic.
11 October was a day of once-seemingly insurmountable record being tied, a reminder that the history books keep adding new chapters while preserving its old ones like papyrus scrolls. Just as the King of Clay was about to launch his title defense, somewhere in Germany, Lewis Hamilton registered his 91st Formula 1 victory to equal the legendary Michael Schumacher for most Grand Prix wins in history.
Once the action got underway in Paris, it seemed certain that Hamilton wouldn't be the only one tying a monumental record on the day. Rafael Nadal looked in cruise control throughout, practically sprinting towards the finish line to tie his greatest rival Roger Federer for the most Grand Slam titles in men's tennis.
But it wasn't supposed to be so easy for the Spaniard; not this year, even on his favorite Parisian clay. He wasn't expected to win a fourth Roland Garros title without the loss of a set after coming into the tournament having played only three matches since March, and certainly not after a straight-sets loss to Diego Schwartzman in Rome.
October French Open? Hardly a problem for Rafael Nadal
Just like for the rest of the world, 2020 has been a weird year for Rafael Nadal too. Normally at this time of the year he would be preparing for a visit to Paris for completely different reasons - to tame the ghosts of indoor hardcourts in the familiar yet hostile surroundings of the Paris Masters.
But this year, Nadal came to the French capital in late September to play at his safe haven, his habitual abode on the red clay, where he's expected to bulldoze all opponents and create new records. Naturally, everything was expected to be different.
The Mallorcan saw little of the sun he loves playing under. Instead, he faced conditions in which he had to wrap himself up inside a blanket when not playing, with temperatures falling to as low as eight degrees Celsius.
Nadal also came into the French Open complaining about the heavier Wilson balls being debuted this year, which would blunt the effect of his topspin. But the biggest elephant in the room was the heavier (and slower) atmospheric conditions of October coupled with the newly built roof on Court Philippe Chatrier.
It's no secret that Rafael Nadal likes playing in outdoor conditions. The blazing sun directly casting its rays on the court below, and the wild winds that swirl around the court and threaten to move the ball in every direction, have often helped Nadal play his very best tennis.
Conversely, a roof negates the impact of outside conditions. That has proven to be Nadal's worst enemy on several occasions in the past, playing a role in some of his biggest defeats.
And those were the conditions the Spaniard was handed while entering the home stretch of his quest for No. 20. When the decision to play with the roof closed was announced by the organizers, the hearts of most Nadal fans sank. Ghosts of the 2018 Wimbledon semifinal quickly resurfaced, and the fears were compounded by the fact that the opponent was going to be the very same Novak Djokovic.
The only source of comfort was that this was Rafael Nadal's kingdom, even if there was a bit of architectural modification. And soon enough, Nadal walked in on the familiar territory albeit in unfamiliar conditions, and proved that it is still, in fact, his kingdom.
Nadal proved his doubters wrong in the most "Rafael Nadal doing Rafael Nadal things at Roland Garros" fashion. He came out firing on all cylinders, taking no time at all to get used to the conditions, and quickly went a double break up.
Novak Djokovic is widely considered the most clutch player the sport has ever seen. But such was Nadal's level in the first set that even a mental giant like Djokovic looked disoriented, lost for answers to the Spaniard's brilliance.
Nadal played perhaps the most tactically sound match he ever has on a claycourt, if not the best match ever, period.
Even in the third set, as he faced a minor setback with a resurrected Djokovic now playing at full strength, the Spaniard did not let up. He broke at the most opportunistic moment possible to seal the historic win.
In the process, Rafael Nadal also served up a reminder to his doubters that writing him off at the French Open, irrespective of the conditions, is like waving a giant red cloth in front of an angry bull. And those doubters include Novak Djokovic's coach, and even the author of this article.
Easy on the trash talk, Goran!
Rafael Nadal was a mind-boggling 93-2 at the French Open coming into its 2020 edition. But for tennis legend Goran Ivanisevic, Nadal was apparently not good enough to get his 100th win at Roland Garros this year.
A couple of days before the final, Novak Djokovic's current coach downplayed Rafael Nadal's chances against his employer with a rather interesting comment. The Croat asserted that Nadal had 'no chance' against Djokovic in this year's conditions, and that the Spaniard had too big of a mental block against his ward.
"I’m counting on Novak. In my opinion, Nadal has no chance in these conditions, on this clay and with Novak, who has got into his head," Goran Ivanisevic had said about Rafael Nadal before the final.
Some might argue that the comment was not your regular trash talk, but a part of the tactical mind games he was playing to get under the skin of Rafael Nadal. But Goran Ivanisevic has probably watched enough tennis to know that mind games do not work against the Emperor of Paris inside his own kingdom.
This is not the first time something has blown up so badly in Ivanisevic's face this year - we are never going to forget the Adria Tour. And while Rafael Nadal fans (and perhaps Djokovic fans too) would love to crack an actual egg on the Croat's head right now, let's be fair to him as he wasn't the only one who had predicted the end of the Spaniard's reign in Paris.
Many experts and fans, including myself, had picked Novak Djokovic as the favorite to win. In fact, I was expecting an easy four-set win for the Djoker, and had at one point contemplated whether it would be a straight-sets affair for the Serb.
But Rafael Nadal loves proving doubters wrong, even if those doubters identify themselves as his fans (again, like yours truly).
Everyone is now speculating whether Nadal will end up as the victor of tennis' never-ending 'GOAT' debate, and if he will stand alone on top of the Majors chart when the era of the Big 3 is finally over. But that's a topic for a different day. For now we just have to sit back and admire what we keep witnessing year after year at this venue, from this truly special athlete.
Even in 2020, even with a pandemic going on, even with a different slot in the calendar, even with different conditions and different balls, Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros is the only constant in life.
Just watch it, breathe it, drink it in. We can always argue later.Published 12 Oct 2020, 03:29 IST