Rafael Nadal is still the king of clay, says Mark Keohane. Photo: Christophe Archambault/AFP
Rafael Nadal is still the king of clay, says Mark Keohane. Photo: Christophe Archambault/AFP

Novak Djokovic conquers but King Rafael Nadal’s Roland Garros reign endures

By Mark Keohane Time of article published Jun 13, 2021

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CAPE TOWN - Rafa Nadal demolished Novak Djokovic 6-0 in the first set of the French Open final eight months ago en-route to an emphatic straight-sets win and in Paris on Friday evening he won the first five games of the first set against the world number one.

There seemed only one likely outcome but as the clock struck midnight in Paris, Nadal, stunningly had been slayed, losing the last six games in succession in a four-hour and 11 minutes four-setter unanimously described as an epic.

The tie break third set, won by Djokovic 7-6 (7-4), lasted 93 minutes.

Djokovic, a loser on several occasions to Nadal at Roland Garros, described the match as his finest in Paris, yes even bigger than his only previous win against Nadal in the quarter-finals in 2015, and he declared the match in his career Grand Slam winning top three.

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Nadal, typically, applauded his conqueror and said he was simply too good on the night.

Nadal has owned Roland Garros’s centre court for the best part of 15 years, breaking every record and setting records that are unlikely to ever be broken.

I was always going to write this tribute to Nadal and his love affair with Roland Garros, regardless of the outcome of Friday’s semi-final against Djokovic, one of only two players to beat Nadal in 17 French Opens.

If not Djokovic, then no one, when it came to beating Nadal at Roland

Garros. And even then, the ‘if’ was in capital letters. Djokovic, nicknamed Nole, is the best men’s player in the world currently and this weekend he can claim to be the best on all surfaces, including clay, which has been the exclusive domain of Nadal.

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It would take a superhuman effort from Djokovic to beat Nadal and he produced that to extend his career advantage against Nadal to two in winning for the 30th time in 58 matches.

Djokovic, at 34, the youngest of Nadal (35) and Roger Federer (40), should finish with the most number of Grand Slam titles and the crown, statistically at least, of the greatest ever men’s player.

Nothing, though, can compare to Nadal’s relationship with the French Open. Federer, Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg and Djokovic have a special bond with the grass of Wimbledon and Djokovic and Federer likewise with the Australian Open and US Open respectively, but it’s the flame that burns with Nadal in Paris that will forever burn bright, despite his first ever defeat in the semi-final of the French Open.

Nadal’s match returns at Roland Garros are incomparable. He won 13 titles in 17 attempts, having been forced to withdraw in one tournament and losing twice to Djokovic, in the 2015 quarter-final and the 2021 semi-final and once to Sweden’s Robin Sorderling in the 2009 fourth round. He has never lost a final and never been taken to five sets in a final.

To give you context, Nadal has lost just three times at the French Open in 108 matches and in his 13 successful finals, won 39 sets and dropped just seven.

He hammered Federer in four finals and was equally dismissive of Djokovic’s challenge in three finals.

Nadal lost in a titanic battle on Friday night, but he will never be thought of anything other than a winner and don’t bet against him returning in 2022 to an unprecedented 14th French Open.

For the Record, Djokovic leads the overall headto-head, 30-28, but Nadal leads 7-2 at Roland Garros, 10-7 at Grand Slams and 19-8 on clay.

Nobody has beaten Nadal more times at Grand Slams than Djokovic, and nobody has beaten Djokovic more times at Grand Slams than Nadal. Djokovic has beaten Nadal seven times at the Slams and Nadal has beaten Djokovic 10 times at the Slams.

Fast fact

Nadal’s 13th French Open win eight months ago extended his tally of most Grand Slam titles won by an individual at the same venue in the Open Era. No other player, male or female, has won as many titles at the same venue at any tour level event. Martina Navratilova won 12 titles at Chicago between 1978 and 1992. Nadal has also won 11 times each at Monte Carlo and Barcelona and Navratilova also won 11 titles at Eastbourne while Federer has won in Basel 10 times.

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