• The Star Staff

Rafael Nadal routs Novak Djokovic at French Open for 20th Grand Slam singles title

By Christopher Clarey, Ben Rothenberg, Matt Futterman and Karen Crouse

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, annihilating 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 arguably Nadal’s finest performance at Roland Garros, which is quite a statement considering that he had already won 12 Grand Slam singles titles on the same rectangle of red clay.

There was nothing unlucky about No. 13. He was on task and on target from the very start against Djokovic, ripping groundstroke winners, running down drop shots and keeping his unforced errors to a strict minimum. He made just two in the opening set, giving Djokovic little time or space to find his range.

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

The most recent of those came at the 2019 Australian Open, where Djokovic overwhelmed Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 in what Djokovic still maintains was the finest performance of his career. Nadal could only purse his lips, shake his head and say “too good.”

But that rout took place on a hard court, 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 in his post-victory remarks. “In Australia he killed me. It’s clear today was for me. That’s part of the game. We’ve played plenty of times together.”

This was not a French Open like any other, however. 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 in the past. The crowds were limited to just 1,000 paying spectators per day at Roland Garros.

It was also the first French Open to be played with a retractable roof and lights, which meant that Nadal had to win his quarterfinal match over Jannik Sinner well after midnight. Because of rain in the afternoon Sunday, the final was played with the roof closed — a first in the history of 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. But he managed to maintain tradition by extending his rule and ending his losing streak against Djokovic.

“Everybody knows this court is the most important court in my tennis career,” Nadal said, before striking a more somber tone.

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

He added: “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.”

Nadal and Djokovic have faced each other 56 times: more than any other men have faced each other on tour in 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. It was a very tough match. I’m obviously not so pleased with the way I played, but I was definitely overplayed by a better player today.”

Nadal, 34, 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 friendly 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.

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

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 and pushing each other to improve their games and extend their careers.

“I have always had the utmost respect for my friend Rafa as a person and as a champion,” Federer said on Twitter shortly after Sunday’s final. “As my greatest rival over many years, I believe we have pushed each other to become better players.”

Federer called winning the French Cup 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. Well done, Rafa. You deserve it.”

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).

Nadal was not eager to have that conversation Sunday.

“I don’t think today about the 20th,” he said. “Today for me is just a Roland Garros victory. Roland Garros means everything to me. I spent here the most important moments or most of the most important moments in my tennis career. No doubt about that.”

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