2020 rewind: Roland-Garros centurion Nadal retains his crown

It’s been a difficult year across the globe but the tennis world has helped provide some distraction with special moments and special players.

Rafael Nadal Roland-Garros 2020©Nicolas Gouhier / FFT
 - Alex Sharp

Novak Djokovic takes the microphone during the on-court trophy presentation and delivered the perfect soundbite.

“Today you showed why you’re ‘King of clay,’ I have experienced it on my own skin,” stated the world No.1 with a grin.

Gracious in defeat, Djokovic was of course referring to Rafael Nadal’s clinic of clay-court tennis on his cherished Court Philippe-Chatrier.

The Spaniard lassoed his racket to his destructive best, blitzing Djokovic off the court 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 to lift his 13th Roland-Garros title. 

Remember, Djokovic is also a key member of the ‘Big Three’ triumvirate, the year-end No.1, with 17 majors. Again, he found the appropriate words to summarise the situation.

“He played a perfect match, especially in the first two sets. No holding him back it seems like. It's amazing,” said Djokovic. “I admire all his achievements, especially the one here. It's stunning score and results and records that he's got on this court.

“He lost two times in his entire career (Soderling 2009, Djokovic 2015). Winning 13 times, there's not much you can say. All the superlatives you can use, he deserves them.”

Major milestones thanks to win No.100

The truncated 2020 campaign combined with Covid-19 concerns meant Nadal only had three matches prior to Roland-Garros since he collected the Acapulco trophy in February.

That trio of encounters occurred on the clay at the Rome Masters in September, where Nadal was readjusting to competitive action, reconfiguring his artillery. 

A straight sets loss to an inspired Diego Schwartzman at the quarter-finals stage dared some to question Nadal’s grip over the Coupe des Mousquetaires at Roland-Garros. 

The landscape was slightly altered in Paris. A smart retractable roof was delicately topped onto Court Philippe-Chatrier, unfortunately spectators were at a reduced capacity and players arrived for an autumnal edition of the Championships. 

Open or closed roof, summer sunshine or Parisian fall, none of it mattered at all, as there was some familiarity. Rafael Nadal’s devastating clay-court craft defying all logic. 

The match sharpness returned, the confidence incrementally built through three routine wins. Into the second week and Nadal dispatched Next Gen qualifier Sebastian Korda (signing a shirt for the American prodigy post-match) before the champion’s instincts really clicked in.

Nadal nullified the threat of the Italian teenage sensation Jannik Sinner, then gained Rome revenge against Diego Schwartzman in two archetypal ‘ruthless Rafa’ performances. 

That left just the final to contend – which Djokovic declared was ‘perfect’ – to complete his fourth fortnight in Paris without dropping a set (2008, 2010, 2017 and 2020). All sorts of records tumbled as Nadal notched up a century, his 100th Roland-Garros match win.

20-20 for Nadal and Federer in 2020

Alongside Nadal and Djokovic in the ‘Big Three’, sadly Roger Federer was absent from Roland-Garros. 

However, the Swiss maestro was watching from afar as Nadal joined Federer atop of the all-time men’s singles Grand Slam titles list with a staggering 20th triumph. It also kept Djokovic at bay on 17, considerably shifting the dynamic of the all-time race.

“I never hide that I would love to finish my career being the player with more Grand Slams. No doubt about that, no?” admitted Nadal following his latest major magic.

“I'm not going to be thinking all the time Novak have 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 have a better phone. You have to live your personal life, no?

“Personally, that's the things that I did during all my career, just try to follow my road, try my best every single day.”

That road has worked well, his 20 majors have been claimed from the 60 Grand Slam main draws he has participated in. Another neat number from Nadal.

The Mallorcan, ever since lifting his first major at Roland-Garros in 2005, has constantly been behind his rival and close friend Federer. Six victories in his last seven Grand Slam finals finally pulled Nadal even.

“In terms of these records, of course that I care. I am a big fan of the history of sport in general. I respect a lot that,” continued the world No.2 in Paris. 

“To share this record between us, that we had an amazing rivalry for such a long time, is something in some way beautiful I really believe.”

The joy was wholeheartedly reciprocated by Federer in a congratulatory tweet shortly after Nadal sank to his knees in celebration on the Court Philippe-Chatrier baseline.

“I have always had the utmost respect for my friend Rafa as a person and as a champion,” posted Federer. “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 that he has now won Roland-Garros an incredible 13 times, which is one of the greatest achievements in sport. 

“I hope 20 is just another step on the continuing journey for both of us.”

The superlatives from Novak, Roger’s respect, the apt way to summarize the excellence of Nadal’s 2020 triumph. 

Recognition away from the confines of the court

Nadal gave his all during the indoor segment of the season, finishing his campaign with a semi-final showing at the Rolex Paris Masters, prior to some exhilarating matches en route to the final four again at the ATP Finals in London. 

No more additional silverware, but Nadal’s compassion and impact off the court was highlighted with a prestigious accolade. 

Earlier in December the 34-year-old received the Grand Cross of the Order of Dos de Mayo, the Community of Madrid's highest honour.

The Mallorcan was hailed for his charitable efforts to help his compatriots fight the Covid-19 pandemic throughout 2020.

A true champion at Roland-Garros, a hero within the tennis community and inspirational idol worldwide.