PARIS • In a year of change, one thing has remained constant – Rafael Nadal lifting the Musketeers’ Cup aloft at Roland Garros.
The Spaniard’s record-extending 13th French Open win – no other player has had more than eight victories at a single Grand Slam in the Open era – was on Sunday hailed by long-time rival Roger Federer.
On Nadal matching his all-time record of 20 Major titles, the Swiss legend, who in June announced he would be sitting out the rest of the year because of knee surgery, tweeted: “I have always had the utmost respect for my friend Rafa as a person and a champion.
“As my greatest rival over many years, I believe we have pushed each other to become better players. Therefore it is a true honour for me to congratulate him on his 20th Grand Slam victory.
“It is especially amazing he has won Roland Garros an incredible 13 times, which is one of the greatest achievements in sport. I hope the 20 is just another step on the continuing journey for both of us.”
Nadal returned the compliments, saying: “I think he’s happy when I’m winning and I’m happy when he’s doing the things well.
“It means a lot, the positive relationship that we have together because we have been going through a great rivalry for a very, very long time.”
However, the world No. 2 is not obsessed with ending his career as the all-time greatest Slam winner.
“I would love to finish my career being the player with more Slams,” the 34-year-old, who is the oldest Roland Garros champion since Andres Gimeno in 1972, said after winning his 100th match against just two losses in 15 years here.
“But I’m not going to be thinking all the time Novak (Djokovic) has this one, Roger is winning the other one. You can’t be always unhappy because your neighbour has a bigger house than you or a bigger boat or has a better phone.
“In terms of these records, of course I care. For me, it means a lot to share this number with Roger.
You can’t be always unhappy because your neighbour has a bigger house than you or a bigger boat or has a better phone.
RAFAEL NADAL, tennis player, on his bid to win more Grand Slam titles than Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
“But let’s see what’s going on when we finish our careers. We keep playing. I don’t know what can happen in the future.”
For Djokovic, he may look back on these last months as some of the most dreadful in his career, a series of moments that appeared to be filled with opportunity but fizzled out in spectacular fashion.
There is no shame in losing to Nadal at Roland Garros, although the Serb should have been more competitive as the slower, heavier ball, cool weather and closed roof were all supposed advantages.
But like so many other times in this strange year, it all went south so quickly for Djokovic, who until Sunday had not lost a competitive match he had completed this year.
“I was not so pleased,” the world No. 1 said of the way things turned out.
That is the way things have gone for some months now for Djokovic, ever since he started the year with victory at the Australian Open.
What looked like another year of dominance came to a halt in March when the coronavirus pandemic forced tennis to shut down for five months.
During the break, Djokovic invited controversy after posting a series of bizarre conversations with his friend, New Age guru Chervin Jafarieh, including one about how the human body can make polluted water healthy through prayer and belief.
In June, the 33-year-old began the Adria Tour, only for the exhibition to become a super-spreader event that was prematurely cancelled after he and several other players were infected by Covid-19, resulting in significant backlash.
With his game on cruise control at the US Open last month with his main rivals absent, Djokovic lost his temper and swatted a ball that hit a line judge in the throat.
Tournament officials, bound by the rules, disqualified him.
Then came Sunday in Paris.
The key for Djokovic moving forward will be whether he can limit his unforced errors, both on the court and off it.
“I have my flaws, as anybody else. In the greatest defeats, you learn the greatest lessons, as a tennis player and a person as well,” he said. “If I thought it was too late (to catch Nadal and Federer), I would have ended my career today. My goals remain the same – the historic No. 1 ranking and Slam titles.”
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NYTIMES