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Put a lid on it: Rafael Nadal closes the door — and the roof — on Djokovic

Matt Zemek

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This won’t be a long piece. We’ll have more to say in the coming days about Rafael Nadal’s 13th Roland Garros title and his third defeat of Novak Djokovic in a French Open final. For now, let’s get one thing straight: A lot of debates which took up entirely too much time, and energy, and speculation, over the past eight years of tennis history have been put to bed.

We can debate (and we certainly WILL debate) how meaningful it is that Nadal won a French Open played under very weird and unusual circumstances. This was #NotANormalTennisTournament, and as I have consistently said, every person gets to decide how much this tournament does or doesn’t mean. There is no definitively right or wrong answer. So much of the discussion surrounding pandemic tennis is best expressed by the thought that the level of meaning at these tournaments is best left to the individuals involved.

There is little objective agreement on the meaning of these tournaments… and what’s more, there doesn’t have to be widespread agreement. It’s okay to have an opinion which greatly differs from another worldview.

However, there’s an exception to all of this, an exception we didn’t know would exist when we woke up Sunday morning.

Earlier this past week, the forecast for Sunday in Paris was supposed to be sunny skies… and in truth, mid-to-late afternoon in Paris WAS sunny.

However, there was a brief rain shower earlier in the afternoon, preceding the scheduled 3:10 p.m. start time for the men’s singles final. Therefore, the new roof over Court Philippe Chatrier was used to create the first-ever indoor Roland Garros men’s singles final.

I don’t need to explain the 2018 kerfuffle over the Wimbledon semifinal between Nadal and Djokovic. It was intense, it burned very brightly, and it remained a point of contention among fan bases and journalists. You know this. I know this. We all know this.

Very simply, Sunday’s Nadal victory — in straight sets, losing serve only once to the greatest returner in the history of tennis — smashes the idea that the roof was central to Djokovic’s win in the 2018 Wimbledon semifinals.

Fans and some pundits have been misled into the false, artificial, reflexively manufactured idea that a roof automatically baked in an advantage for Djokovic, much as they felt Roger Federer had that same baked-in advantage once a roof was used in the third set of the 2012 Wimbledon final against Andy Murray.

The debate about the greatest of all time (GOAT) has raged on among tennis lovers, and yet in the midst of that debate, it was felt by many that the presence or absence of a roof decided (or at least shaped) the outcome of significant major tennis matches between elite players.

This was always an absurd junk-food debate. Imagine thinking that a player could simultaneously be the GOAT and yet be horribly wronged by the presence of a roof. Those two thoughts simply can’t coexist in a logical world.

Either a player is the GOAT — able to handle all conditions no matter what — or the presence of a roof, if it is supposedly that influential, obviously makes a player much less than the GOAT.

Either a player is supreme in all circumstances, or that player really needs help.

You can’t have it both ways.

Helpfully, then, the presence of a roof for the 2020 Roland Garros men’s final enabled all of us to see that Rafael Nadal doesn’t need a “naked” stadium to thrive. He can have a covered, blanketed arena and still beat Novak Freakin’ Djokovic in straights. Nadal isn’t dependent on a certain kind of ball, or a certain kind of court speed, or a certain kind of weather, or a certain place on the calendar, in order to win at Roland Garros.

Early June… or October.

Babolat… or Wilson.

A sun-baked court in late spring, or a cooler indoor court in fall.

It doesn’t matter. Greatness figures out how to prevail.

We can speculate and wonder about the meaning of this French Open on a million different levels, but if this tournament provided any absolute certainty about anything (other than Rafael Nadal being a claycourt god — DUH!), it’s that the roof debates tennis fans and pundits have had over the past eight years were a huge waste of time and breath.

Thankfully, they have been put to bed by Daddy Nadal.

Thank you, Rafa. You have done the sport of tennis a profound public service.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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