Rafael Nadal was not expected to beat Novak Djokovic in the Roland Garros quarterfinals, but that doesn’t mean he was a huge underdog or that there was no way he could possibly win. Djokovic handled him in Paris a year ago, and after that match concluded, it was revealed that Nadal was not 100-percent healthy at the end. Nadal has had to live with limits throughout his career. He hasn’t played in a number of major tournaments, and he has left a number of Australian Open quarterfinals with injuries which cut his campaigns short. His playing style has come with a cost.
Yet, what is most remarkable about Nadal is how he keeps getting off the mat, fighting through the pain, and creating another set of indelible tennis memories and towering sports achievements. If life, and pain, and Djokovic all knock him down, he answers.
He keeps answering.
This latest answer, coming so late in his career — a career some Nadal fans think might be much closer to ending than many think (we gonna see, no?) — and in Rafa’s Parisian red-brick citadel of excellence, Court Philippe Chatrier, will long be remembered as one of the Spaniard’s finest moments.
In a career with 21 — maybe 22 very soon — major titles, that’s saying something.
Yet, we know it’s not hyperbolic or excessive to place this match in the top tier of all-time Rafa moments.
Rafa transcends limits. This doesn’t mean he isn’t subject to them; it means that for every time he is limited, there’s another occasion in which he goes beyond his limits. For every big loss to Djokovic, there’s an equally big win. For every setback, there is a King of Clay-sized conquest.
In reflecting on his latest win over Djokovic, the big story — the one which contains the most impact — is that two years after Nadal beat Djokovic under a roof in a Roland Garros final, he once again beat Djokovic in conditions viewed to be favorable to the Serbian superstar.
A lot was made before the match about the cold night conditions slowing the ball and lowering the bounce, thereby putting the ball in Djokovic’s strike zone and robbing Rafa of the advantage he has enjoyed on sunny Sunday afternoons in past Roland Garros finals against Nole (which he has never lost).
It wasn’t necessarily wrong to say the conditions favored Djokovic, but the extent of Novak’s advantage was greatly overstated.
Nadal handled Djokovic under the roof in October of 2020. Did we forget so soon that while conditions can make a difference, Nadal can and does transcend them, just as he transcends everything else?
Keep in mind that as Nadal gets older, he probably appreciates not playing in a brutal sun. That in itself reduced the value of Djokovic getting to play him in colder night conditions. Also realize that the slower court meant Djokovic, not just Nadal, would have problems hitting through the court. Nadal looked very comfortable defending and returning serve in this match. Djokovic didn’t get tons of free points on serve, something he regularly needs when these men play.
It doesn’t mean Djokovic didn’t have an advantage — of course Rafa wants the ball to bounce high, up to shoulder if not eye-level height — but the extent of the advantage was certainly overstated.
Nadal beat Djokovic under a roof. Now he has beaten him in cold night conditions. Can we stop freaking out about the time of day when a Rafole match is played, or whether it is under a roof?
I said this in October of 2020, and I’ll say it now: If Nadal really is the greatest of all time, then conditions shouldn’t ever matter.
If Rafael Nadal Parera can do anything and everything in tennis, why not allow him to exist beyond limits?
Is the central question of the life, no?