Nadal's 20 Grand Slams among the most amazing feats in sports

On the women’s side, Poland’s Iga Swiatek emerged as latest new star in the anything-can-happen, post-Serena Williams era.

Rafael Nadal has captured four French titles without ceding a set, a record. He’s a perfect 13-0 in both Roland Garros semifinals and finals, two more records. His 100 wins on the Paris terra battue — against only two losses — is yet another record. And, astoundingly, just twice has the maestro from Mallorca ever been extended to five sets.   -  AP

In a world wracked by a pandemic and uncertainty, where sports have become a haven for many, we can still count on one athlete to deliver greatness at one venue. Rafael Nadal.

Ever since this long-haired Spanish teenager in pirate pants and sleeveless shirts captivated fans winning the 2005 French Open, Nadal has reigned 13 times there. This feat ranks among the most amazing in sports, along with other unbreakable career records such as Bill Russell’s 11 NBA titles as a Boston Celtic, Wayne Gretzky’s 2,856 points, Michael Phelps’ 23 Olympic gold medals and Pele’s 760 goals.

Swashbuckling on the tennis court and modest off it, the King of Clay’s extraordinary longevity is matched by his jaw-dropping domination. Consider this: Nadal has captured four French titles without ceding a set, a record. He’s a perfect 13-0 in both Roland Garros semifinals and finals, two more records. His 100 wins on the Paris terra battue — against only two losses — is yet another record. And, astoundingly, just twice has the maestro from Mallorca ever been extended to five sets.

Novak Djokovic, always gracious in defeat, said, “He (Nadal) keeps going. No holding him back it seems like. It’s amazing. I admire all his achievements, especially the one here…. All the superlatives you can use, he deserves them.”   -  Getty Images

 

Renowned for his competitiveness and stamina, Nadal has often talked about suffering during matches, especially during his storied rivalries with fellow superstars Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. The Great Ones often do suffer. Russell used to vomit before every titanic clash against Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain. Russell knew that banging against his 7’1”, 275-pound arch-rival for 40 minutes would bring plenty of pain, just as Nadal knows sprinting and trading blows with Roger and Novak for four or five hours will do the same. And unlike in team sports, he has no teammates or coaches or substitutes or game-ending clocks to help him. Before this dream final against Djokovic, Nadal reminded reporters, “It’s important to go through all the process. You have to suffer. You can’t pretend to be in a final of Roland Garros without suffering. That’s what happened there.”

In this year’s edition of The Nadal Show, though, he seldom suffered. In fact, Rafa didn’t drop a set and lost two or fewer games in 11 of 21 sets. No matter. Taking every opponent as if he were a No. 1, Nadal is perpetually fired up, from his hyperactive bouncing up and down during the pre-match coin flip to match point. Perspiration flies from his face almost from the opening point. Though his fist pumps and cries of “Vamos” have lessened as he aged, his frequent ball bouncing before serving, total focus and never-say-die defence reflect an intensity equalled perhaps only by past champions Pancho Gonzalez, Steffi Graf and Monica Seles. “I play each point like my life depends on it,” Nadal once said.

Parallel tracks

Nadal and Djokovic, the new Big Two with Federer sidelined, seemed to be on parallel tracks on opposite sides of the draw. Each were clobbering opponents until the quarterfinals. Then the slender 6’2” Serb dropped the opening set against 17th-seeded Pablo Carreno Busta. That had to bring back bad memories from their US Open match. There, late in the first set, Djokovic angrily whacked a ball that inadvertently hit a linewoman in the throat. Almost as fast as you can say “Oh my God!” he was defaulted — and with Federer and Nadal absent — deprived of a golden opportunity to win his 18th Grand Slam. But the world No. 1 regained his form quickly for a 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 victory.

Referring to his US Open faux pas and his staging a mini-circuit in Serbia in May that infected himself, his wife and several others with coronavirus, Djokovic admitted he tends “to make life complicated.” That’s exactly what happened against fifth-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semifinals. Ahead 6-3, 6-2, 5-4, 40-30, Djoker failed to convert a match point, when he missed a backhand down the line. With the handsome, charismatic, 22-year-old pounding almost every shot, Djokovic lost his serve and then lost it again when Tsitsipas blasted a forehand winner to steal the third set, 7-5.

When fans started chanting “Stefanos,” the frustrated Djokovic had to wonder what he had to do to get some love. After all, for the past decade he had played third fiddle in popularity to Federer and Nadal.

Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece stretched Djokovic to five sets in the men’s semifinals before running out of steam.   -  Getty Images

 

The Greek god’s surprising comeback continued as he took the fourth set 6-4. But Djokovic had never lost a match in his 15-year career after holding a match point. Soon enough, order was restored and the Serb prevailed 6-1 in the deciding set.

Meanwhile, Nadal faced another highly regarded Next Genner in the quarterfinals. Jannik Sinner, only 19, had upset sixth-seeded Alexander Zverev in four sets behind concussive, topspin groundstrokes averaging more than 80 miles an hour. But that power didn’t faze Nadal, whom tour veteran Fabio Fognini had described as “savage” in his new book. Sinner found out why. After winning the first two close sets 7-6 (4), 6-4, the relentless Rafa pummeled him 6-1.

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Nadal then played one of the tour’s toughest outs, 5’7” Diego Schwartzman, at No. 12, the highest-ranked man to stand that height or shorter since 5’6”, No. 10 Harold Solomon in 1981. In the most entertaining and high-calibre quarterfinal, Schwartzman had outlasted third-seed Dominic Thiem, the recent US Open champion, 7-6 (1), 5-7, 6-7 (6), 7-6 (5), 6-2. Thiem was running on fumes after unheralded Frenchman Hugo Gaston had worn him out with 55 drop shots (winning 40 of those points!) in a five-setter lasting more than five hours.

Three weeks earlier at Cincinnati, Schwartzman shocked a rusty Nadal 6-3, 7-5, and he crowed, “Rafa is a legend here, but I know I can beat him.” Confidence is good and two-of-three-set matches are one thing. But perhaps the little big man wasn’t aware of Nadal’s awesome 124-2 career record in five-set matches.

Unlike Solomon, Schwartzman packs plenty of groundstroke power, particularly on his backhand and serve returns, where he’s ranked among the top three for the past three years. After Nadal surged ahead 6-3, 6-3, the resilient Argentine forced a tiebreaker. Nadal, who hadn’t lost a tiebreaker at Roland Garros since 2013, set the tone with backhand passing shot and forehand volley winners. Minutes later, the 6’1”, 190-pound Nadal crushed his much-smaller foe, 7-0, to reach the final.

Greatest rivalry

Nadal and Djokovic had duelled 55 times, more than any men’s rivalry in Open Era history. Djokovic led 29-26, but more impressively, 14-4 since 2013. The streaking Serb boasted a sensational 37-1 record this year, the only loss self-inflicted when he was disqualified at the US Open. He’d also grabbed five of the last eight Grand Slam titles. Finally, Djokovic was highly motivated to win his 18th major to close the gap between him and Federer (20) and Nadal (19), a burning goal he often discussed with the media.

Nadal, in sharp contrast, didn’t like to talk about records. But, he, too, was an avid student of tennis history and dearly wanted to surpass Federer’s record. Beating Nadal in a best-of-five-set contest on clay has long been considered the toughest test in tennis. Even though Djokovic had notched seven wins in their last 15 matches on clay, he’d won just one French Open title, in 2016. All stats considered, the edge had to go to the King of Clay.

The final everyone wanted turned into one no one could have predicted. From start to finish, Nadal played brilliantly in every phase of the game, especially tactics. He initially grumbled about the cold weather, heavy new Wilson balls that would slightly reduce the effectiveness of his wicked topspin forehand, and the slower courts. But he made only subtle tactical changes, like taking Djokovic out of his comfort zone with occasional slice backhands landing short and near the sideline.

In an entertaining and high-calibre quarterfinal, Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman outlasted third-seed Dominic Thiem, the recent US Open champion, 7-6 (1), 5-7, 6-7 (6), 7-6 (5), 6-2.   -  AFP

 

Djokovic, on the other hand, blundered by trying far too many drop shots. Perhaps he wasn’t aware of a similar game plan adopted by Vitas Gerulaitis in the 1980 French final. A heavy underdog against Bjorn Borg, that era’s king of clay, Gerulaitis too frequently used the drop shot. The tactic backfired badly as the speedy Swede handled them and went on to rout Gerulaitis 6-4, 6-1, 6-2. The lesson: even on slow clay, drop shots must be used judiciously.

Four drop shots led to Djokovic losing his serve in the important opening game. On the other side of the net, Nadal blasted forehands, hit backhands with greater aggressiveness than ever and defending almost preternaturally. After the Spaniard staved off four break points to lead 4-0, NBC analyst Mary Carillo perceptively said, “Djokovic set the tone with drop shots, but he has to get back to what he does best, control the rallies, because Nadal is bullying him.”

Strangely, Djokovic never did and lost his first 6-0 set in a major final. Nadal was “in the zone,” but Djokovic seemed clueless about how to turn the tide. After Nadal notched his second break to lead 4-1 in the second set, NBC analyst John McEnroe said, “Nadal is playing great no doubt, but this is not even a match. I can’t believe what I’m seeing. So much for the heavy conditions bothering Nadal.”

When Nadal made a rare forehand return of serve error in the seventh game, Djokovic raised his arms as if to say, “Finally, I win an easy point.” Despite a double fault and a time violation, Nadal routinely took the next game and the second set, 6-2.

Sublime tennis

Over the first two sets, the almost-flawless Nadal had committed only five unforced errors, compared to 29 for the self-destructive Djokovic. “The level Nadal is playing is sublime, time-capsule stuff,” said former No. 1 Jim Courier, a Tennis Channel analyst, at start of the third set.

When Nadal broke at love for a 3-2 lead in the third set, Djokovic looked doomed to defeat. But urged on by the small but vocal crowd, he became energised enough to break back, stroking a backhand approach winner on break point for 3-all.

Nadal had returned first serves successfully from an average of 12 feet behind the baseline, but Djokovic made another tactical mistake by copying Nadal’s positioning. “I’m surprised Djokovic doesn’t move in and attack Nadal’s second serve,” said McEnroe. “He’s the greatest returner I’ve ever seen.” Clearly not on this bad day in Paris.

Djokovic survived a break point in the ninth game to go ahead 5-4. Tennis is a game of inches, and two games later, at 30-all, he hit a forehand two inches beyond the baseline and then a double fault, landing a millimetre wide.

Nadal closed out the lopsided final at love, delivering the coup de grace fittingly with an ace on championship point. Only a clairvoyant could have predicted this 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 massacre.

Perhaps due to the pandemic, which had returned with a vengeance to France — hit with a record 27,000 new cases of COVID-19 the day before — Nadal’s victory celebration was relatively muted. He simply dropped to his knees, smiled and thrust out both arms, pointing with his forefingers.

Iga Swiatek of Poland poses on the rooftop of les Galeries Lafayettes Rue de la Chaussee d’Antin with the Suzanne Lenglen Cup after her victory. Swiatek is only 19, ranked a nondescript No. 54, had never won a pro tournament, and before her breakthrough in Paris, was even contemplating going to college.   -  Getty Images

 

His speech during the trophy ceremony reflected the sober reality of our tragic year. “Of course, it is an important day for me, but I’m not stupid, no?” he said. “It’s still a very sad situation worldwide. If you ask me what’s my feeling, of course I am super happy. On the other hand, I am not that happy as usual because the situation is tough for most of the people around the world.”

The sports world, though, could take immense pleasure in yet another extraordinary performance by Nadal. If there was any doubt as to the current GOAT, it was dispelled on this Sunday.

Djokovic, always gracious in defeat, said, “He keeps going. No holding him back it seems like. It’s amazing. I admire all his achievements, especially the one here…. All the superlatives you can use, he deserves them.”

As for the Next Gen and other contenders encouraged by Thiem’s US Open triumph, McEnroe put everything back into perspective. “It only took a pandemic, Federer having knee surgery, Djokovic getting defaulted, and Nadal not playing,” McEnroe said acerbically. “So Thiem finally got a Slam.”

The Big Two are back on top! And don’t count out ageless Federer either next year.

Surprising Swiatek crushes field

She gets fired up before matches by listening to Welcome to the Jungle by Guns N’ Roses. And she gets calmed down between matches by a sports psychologist.

Meet Iga Swiatek, the French Open champion and latest new star in the anything-can-happen, post-Serena Williams era.

READ | French Open champ Swiatek rises to 17th; Djokovic, Nadal unchanged

First-time champions have claimed nine of the last 14 Grand Slam tournaments, and Swiatek rates as the least likely. She’s only 19, ranked a nondescript No. 54, had never won a pro tournament, and before her breakthrough in Paris, was even contemplating going to college. Once Swiatek (pronounced shvee-ON’-tek) reached the Roland Garros final, though, everything changed. “Well, right now it’s going to be hard to make a decision to go back to studying,” she said, “because I feel like really I can achieve big things.”

That’s an understatement, especially considering the decisiveness of her triumphs. She surrendered just 28 games in seven matches, while becoming the first woman to win the French title without losing a set since superstar Justine Henin in 2007. What a gap-year story to tell her grandchildren!

The lyrics to Swiatek’s favourite rock song start with “Welcome to the jungle, we’ve got fun and games.”

Her fun and games started in the opening round. The 5’9” Pole ambushed 15th-seeded Martina Vondrousova, the defending finalist, 6-1, 6-2.

Sofia Kenin of the U.S., the Australian Open champion, was no match for Swiatek in the final.   -  AP

 

The rest of the raging, wailing lyrics depict the mean streets of the underbelly of Los Angeles. One line — "And when you’re high you never ever wanna come down" — had to appeal to Swiatek as she took on and conquered one foe after another in the rectangular clay court jungle.

In the next round, Swiatek swatted down Hseih su-Wei, the tricky Chinese Taipei veteran, 6-1, 6-4. Her next victim, Eugenie Bouchard, the hard-hitting 2014 Wimbledon finalist on the comeback trail, succumbed 6-3, 6-2 to the Pole’s more versatile and consistent game.

But the lioness queen still lurked in the jungle. A year ago, Simona Halep ate Swiatek for dinner 6-1, 6-0. Now the No. 1 seed Halep and Swiatek crossed paths in the fourth round. Revenge could not have been sweeter as Swiatek ruthlessly killed her prey 6-1, 6-2. “I didn’t lose that match, Iga won it,” conceded Halep. “She was everywhere. At this level nobody surprises anybody anymore. Everyone has a big level.”

So true, but no one bigger than the rampaging Swiatek. As she prowled the jungle, she found an accomplice. Swiatek and American Nicole Melichar, unseeded but extremely dangerous, kept devouring doubles teams, including three seeds and would eventually reach the final. Though some questioned her judgement — wasn’t Swiatek risking injury or exhaustion that could jeopardise her chance in singles? — she thought otherwise. “I’m getting more experience in tactics in doubles,” she explained. “So I’m just developing as a player.”

From hunter to hunted

That rapid development turned Swiatek from the hunter to the hunted. She knew it. And she had to deal with her new and slightly scary status. Daria Abramowicz, a sports psychologist who travels with her, helped her keep an even keel. “At the beginning I felt little bit more pressure because I feel like after beating Simona, I’m not underdog anymore,” Swiatek said. “Yeah, I talked with Daria about it. I just kept my mindset from the previous matches.”

Another giant-killer, an obscure 5’3” Italian named Martina Trevisan, a happy warrior much like Swiatek, had shocked everyone by reaching the quarterfinals. A qualifier ranked a lowly 138, Trevisan had already knocked out fifth-seeded Kiki Bertens and 20th-seeded Maria Sakkari. But the mighty mite Trevisan proved no match for Swiatek, who ended her Cinderella run 6-3, 6-1.

What exactly accounted for Swiatek’s stunning domination? “Swiatek doesn’t go for the big shot, she goes for the smart shot,” explained all-time great Martina Navratilova, now a Tennis Channel analyst. “That’s what is so impressive about her.”

Nadia Podoroska of Argentina, who had never beaten a top-50 player before, became the first female qualifier in history to reach the Roland Garros semifinals.   -  Getty Images

 

And what is the key to her smart shot selection? “Swiatek holds the baseline better than anyone in the game now,” Navratilova said. “No one hits the ball as early as her.” That positional tactic starts on the first shot when she returns many serves from just inside the baseline and often doesn’t back off during rallies. As a result, the Pole won an incredible 70% of her return games throughout the tournament.

The upset-riddled top half of the draw became even weaker when Serena Williams withdrew before the second round because of a painful Achilles injury. Capitalising on her good placement, Nadia Podoroska, a little-known Argentine, surprised No. 23 Yulia Putintseva, of Kazakhstan, 6-3, 1-6, 6-2, and, in the quarterfinals, shocked third-seeded Elina Svitolina 6-2, 6-4. A wicked topspin forehand and timely drop shots accounted for many of Podoroska’s 30 winners compared to only eight for Svitolina. The 131st-ranked qualifier, who had never beaten a top-50 player before, thus became the first female qualifier in history to reach the Roland Garros semifinals. When asked about her dream run, Podoroska replied, “I don’t want to wake up.”

In the semis, the Argentine got the ultimate wake-up call. Swiatek finished her off 6-2, 6-1. After the rout, the Pole cupped her ears and waved her arms to get more applause from the sparse crowd. (Strict tournament protocol allowed a maximum of 1,000 spectators each day.)

Of her own dream, Swiatek said, “It seems unreal. On the one hand, I know that I can play great tennis. On the other hand, it’s kind of surprising for me. I never would have thought that I’m going to be in the final. It’s crazy. It’s amazing for me, like a dream come true.”

Jungle beast

A jungle beast like few others confronted Swiatek in the final. In the mould of the strutting, fist-pumping Jimmy Connors, Sofia Kenin talked the talk and walked the walk. Asked to describe herself, she said, “I’m just really fierce. I’m just fighting for every point.”

Kenin proved that at the Australian Open. There she upset No. 1 Ashleigh Barty 7-6, 7-5 in the semis and overcame two-time major titlist Garbine Muguruza 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 to capture her first Grand Slam title. The 21-year-old, Russian-born American showed a different kind of resilience when she bounced back from a 6-0, 6-0 shellacking by Victoria Azarenka at the Italian Open in September. “What I admire is her ability to shrug off things,” said 1980s champion John McEnroe, referring to that drubbing.

At the French Open, Kenin was clearly a wounded animal. She survived four three-set battles, all against unseeded players — Ludmila Samsonova, Ana Bigdan, Fiona Ferro and Danielle Collins, another ferocious competitor. The fourth-seeded Kenin finally regained her elite form in the semis against two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova. Parlaying her potent backhand, which had produced a tournament-high 91 winners in five matches, a wicked drop shot and terrific defence, she edged the powerful but error-prone Czech 6-4, 7-5.

Oddsmakers slightly favoured the red-hot Swiatek. But Navratilova predicted, “I give the edge to Kenin. She’s the more solid player. She’s been there and done that.”

Would the momentum of Swiatek prevail over the experience of Kenin?

Swiatek exuded confidence, saying, “There’s a reason why I was so efficient. Really, I’m staying super-focused. I’m, like, not letting my opponents play their best tennis.” Kenin sounded like her opponent was a puzzle she hadn’t yet solved. “I mean, I have to figure out what she does,” said Kenin. “She’s had a great two weeks here. She’s had some great results, playing some really good tennis.”

They had never faced each other in the pros, though the younger Swiatek had won their only match four years earlier at the French Open junior event. Swiatek’s favourite and most successful surface was clay, while Kenin had never advanced past the quarters at a clay event, though she did upset Serena at Roland Garros in the third round last year.

On playing her first major final — she had never even reached a major quarterfinal before — Swiatek quipped, “If I’m not going to choke... everything will be fine.” Thinking along those same lines, Kenin said, “I know what the emotions are getting into your first Grand Slam final. I’m hoping she’s going to be a little bit nervous.”

Wishful thinking

That proved wishful thinking. The poised Swiatek grabbed 12 of the first 15 points and raced ahead 3-0. Her only sign of nerves came in the fifth game, as she made two unforced groundstroke errors and double-faulted on break point to lose her serve for 3-2. Swiatek handled adversity by closing her eyes and talking a bit to herself on changeovers. It was reminiscent of the meditation Arthur Ashe practised in his memorable 1975 Wimbledon final upset over Connors. Conversely, the intense Kenin grunted with every shot and screamed when she won long rallies and pivotal points.

Service breaks abounded in this engaging but not exceptionally played final. Swiatek converted on her third break point to lead 5-3. Kenin fought off a set point at 5-4, 40-30 and then belted a backhand serve return winner to break back to cut the lead to 5-4.

But Swiatek, a boxer-puncher equally skilful on attack and defence, increasingly frustrated Kenin. So much so that the American tamely lost her serve and the opening set, 6-4, on an unforced backhand error.

Presumably hoping to reverse Swiatek’s momentum, Kenin took a bathroom break. Mary Carillo was rightly suspicious, saying, “Kenin always takes a bathroom break if she loses the first set.” One of the worst rules in women’s tennis has to be changed so that a bathroom break is allowed only after the second set.

The ploy worked at least in the very short run. Kenin broke Swiatek’s serve with a forehand winner to go ahead 1-0. After that, it was one-way traffic as Swiatek broke three straight times to zoom ahead 5-1. A medical timeout to rewrap Kenin’s injured left thigh prompted another rebuke from Carillo. “She’s a disrupter, but this kind of disruption I question.” In any event, it didn’t disrupt Swiatek, who smartly stayed warm and collected by practising her serve.

A picture-perfect backhand crosscourt winner by Swiatek produced her last service break for 5-1. On championship point, the Pole pounced on a short ball and stroked a forehand crosscourt winner. To absorb the enormity of her stunning 6-4, 6-1 victory and her country’s first Grand Slam singles title, Swiatek put her hands over her eyes. Then, to celebrate it, she smiled and romped back on the court and punched the air.

Italian Martina Trevisan, a qualifier ranked a lowly 138, knocked out fifth-seeded Kiki Bertens and 20th-seeded Maria Sakkari, before she was stopped in the quarterfinals by Swiatek.   -  Getty Images

 

In what has become a champion’s ritual first started by Pat Cash when he won the 1987 Wimbledon, a jubilant Swiatek (sans face mask) scampered up the stands to hug her father, sister, sports psychologist, coach (Piotr Sierzputowski) and other friends.

During her endearing victory speech, Swiatek said, “I’m not very good at speeches. I won my last tournament three years ago.”

As McEnroe said during the end of the lopsided second set, “The way she’s playing now, you can imagine she’ll win six majors.”

Talented Grand Slam champions Barty, Bianca Andreescu and Naomi Osaka all skipped Roland Garros. But when they return to the survival-of-the fittest jungle, a new roaring lioness queen they’ll have to vanquish.