The 2020 French Open was unlike any previous edition of the Major. The COVID-19 pandemic ensured that players who are usually accustomed to embracing the summer warmth of Paris had to endure the autumnal cold and rain. The new retractable roof over court Philippe-Chatrier, play under lights and the reportedly “slow and heavy” Wilson balls made clay-court tennis drastically different. What was unchanged, however, was Rafael Nadal holding aloft the Coupe des Mousquetaires for a record-extending 13th time in 15 years and the patented trophy biting celebration. The straight sets demolition of World No.1 Novak Djokovic, his toughest rival, brought the Spaniard level with Roger Federer’s men’s record for Grand Slam titles (20) and has set up a mouth-watering 2021. But Nadal’s preparation for the tournament was far from ideal. The coronavirus situation, especially in his home country, had left him deeply distressed. A quarterfinal loss in Rome last month meant that the 34-year-old entered Roland Garros without winning a clay event for the first time in his career. But the way Nadal negated all potentially inhibiting factors, and reached unprecedented heights of excellence against an opponent who was undefeated in five straight Slam finals, was gunning for his 18th Major, and whose only loss in 38 matches this year was through a disqualification in unfortunate circumstances, made the victory probably his best.
What also came to the fore was Nadal’s longevity — 15 years between the first and latest Slam, and a record six Majors after turning 30 — and his drive to constantly seek perfection. Djokovic’s role in this is central. Though they had met 55 times before, very few came when both were at their absolute peaks. Yet, their tactics have continuously evolved like in a cat and mouse game. After the nearly six-hour long Australian Open final defeat to Djokovic in 2012, Nadal spruced up his attacking play. Since the return from the 2015-16 slump, he continuously worked to better his backhand and break out of the losing patterns Djokovic drew him into. Sunday seemed the culmination of all the hard work. While Nadal led Djokovic by just one point in rallies lasting five shots or more (53-52), he crushed the Serb 53-25 in those that had four shots or less. Where Nadal made just nine backhand errors, he drew 26 more from Djokovic’s favoured wing. Over the last fortnight, this first-strike strategy was also perfected by the 19-year-old Iga Swiatek. The Pole felled the tactically astute Sofia Kenin with a ruthless display of power and intelligence to claim her maiden Major without losing a set. The French Open has crowned four straight first-time women’s Grand Slam champions, rewarding styles ranging from all-out attack to nimble-footed craftiness. Swiatek’s all-round game is a worthy addition.