Sometimes in sports, you sit in front of your TV screen and simply enjoy watching a match or a game. Other times, you walk away with lessons that can last you a lifetime.
Observing Rafael Nadal in action often leaves you with the latter – at least that was the case these past two weeks in Paris, where the Spaniard stormed to a record-extending 13th Roland Garros crown and a record-equalling 20th Grand Slam title.
Nadal triumphing on Parisian clay is nothing new; in fact he’s done it 100 times before, literally. The 34-year-old owns a 100-2 win-loss mark at the French Open, which might make you wonder: why is his victory over Novak Djokovic in the final on Sunday any different from what he’s achieved at Roland Garros in the past?
In some ways it wasn't. Nadal has had the upper hand against Djokovic in seven of their eight meetings on Paris' terre battue. But in a year like 2020, where everything has been different and the world has been turned on its head by a deadly virus, pulling off the same, consistent result as you've done in past seasons is in itself a miracle.
Nadal usually arrives in Paris each May with two or three titles under his belt, captured on his beloved clay. This year, he got to the French capital with just three matches contested on the surface in the build-up.
Also it wasn’t May, but September, since Roland Garros had to move in the calendar due to the pandemic. The weather was cold, the tournament had new heavier balls and the conditions were pretty much the opposite of what Nadal prefers to play on.
“I was also thinking that these conditions are more favourable to me. But Rafa has proven everybody wrong. That's why he's a great champion,” Djokovic said on Sunday following his crushing three-set defeat to the Mallorcan.
Nadal is known to be a creature of habit. He likes to stay in the same hotel each year in Paris during the tournament, he places his water bottles in exactly the same spot on court during matches, facing a certain way, and he goes through a meticulous routine before every serve he hits. Yet, it’s his capacity to adapt that gave him the edge this year at Roland Garros.
Nadal's trophy tour
“Rafa is Rafa. I think he knows how to improve. He knows how to practice, how to do everything. After [I beat him in] Rome, he goes straight to practice. He went to improve the things that he did bad in Rome. That's why he's in the final right now,” said Diego Schwartzman after his semi-final loss to Nadal in Paris on Friday.
Nadal doesn’t toot his own horn that often but he did give himself a pat on the back for his attitude towards everything he had to tackle during the tournament.
“I was able to adapt well. I was able to be positive in every circumstances that I was facing during the whole event, trying to accept all the challenges in terms of sometimes the feeling on the ball haven't been great because of the cold and everything,” explained the world No 2.
“But I take it in a positive way, no? I just tried to work every day with the right determination, looking for my goals. I think this is one of the Roland Garros [titles] that have a better personal value for myself.”
That attitude can be contagious. We talk a lot about ‘greatness’ in sport, and one of the key factors to be considered when trying to quantify an athlete’s greatness is his impact on those around him, those competing against him or those watching from close or afar.
Former US Open champion Sloane Stephens was one of the scores of players to congratulate Nadal on Sunday after his win.
“Truly amazing @RafaelNadal !! An incredible athlete and more importantly an incredible person. Thank you for what you’ve done for our sport & our communities,” tweeted Stephens.
Arab No 1, Ons Jabeur, told reporters earlier during Roland Garros that she initially didn’t feel like competing in Paris under such tricky autumnal conditions. Guess who inspired her to change her attitude?
“I'm going to be honest here. I was like, ‘Why are we playing?’” the Tunisian said of her first reaction upon arriving at the tournament.
“Then obviously I was looking how Rafa was taking this whole situation. To be honest, if he's a champion and he doesn't complain about it, I mean, who am I to complain about it right now?”
A few days later, Jabeur became the first Arab woman in history to reach the last 16 at Roland Garros. Nadal is obviously not why the 26-year-old hit a new milestone at the French Open, but it’s always helpful when you can gain that little extra perspective from one of the greatest the sport has ever seen.
Nadal is now on level terms with Federer at the top of the men’s all-time list of most Grand Slam singles titles won. He had been trailing the Swiss in that category his entire career, ever since he lifted his first major in Paris 15 years ago.
Moments after defeating Djokovic on Court Philippe-Chatrier on Sunday, Nadal spoke to the crowd, not about what it means to him to finally sit atop the Grand Slam leaderboard, but about the difficult times we’re collectively going through right now.
“Just keep going, stay positive and all the very best, together probably we will go through this and we will beat the virus soon,” he said on court.
He later added in his press conference: “Of course, it’s an important day for me, but I'm not stupid, no? It’s still a very sad situation worldwide.”
At the start of Roland Garros, Nadal acknowledged the context in which the tournament was being held. “It is sad, I can't say otherwise. A tournament under these conditions… But maybe that's what it needs to feel like. It needs to be sad, so many people in the world are suffering,” he stated.
Nadal struck the same tone throughout his entire 2020 Roland Garros journey, from start to finish. Whether he was chasing glory, or had already achieved it, he reminded us all of what truly matters, and that sport, and his role in it, should never be a distraction from what’s happening around us. Instead, it could be an inspiration for ways to deal with it.
Another life lesson from the wise Spaniard!