James Anderson, grey skies, the new ball. Jonny Wilkinson, the pocket, the drop goal. Usain Bolt, the Olympics, the 100m track. Simone Biles, major competition, the floor.
In certain sporting situations, you know the outcome, yet whether it’s Jimmy ripping through a World Class top order, Jonny slotting a beautifully struck three points off his wrong foot, Bolt smashing World Records or Biles making history over and over again, there is something utterly magical about these people doing what they do.
With all that said though, nothing comes close to watching Rafael Nadal operate on a clay tennis court. It truly is a privilege, and last Sunday’s final was a reminder of what we will miss when the Spaniard eventually retires.
My personal interest in tennis, particularly men’s tennis, has wavered in recent times. Backing the Brit, I was much more interested when arguably the greatest British sportsperson of all time, Andy Murray of course, was challenging at the top of the game. His fierce intensity, incredible defence and emotional energy not only gave me passion for the sport, but made his competitive spirit relatable and supporting him a great thrill.
In the meantime I have been willing Serena Williams to win her 24th and 25th Grand Slam titles both because of how much such an inspiring figure deserves to be known as the true GOAT of women’s tennis and to consign Margaret Court, an individual who has repeatedly shared extremist homophobic views, to no longer being the “official” greatest Women’s singles player. To see Williams lose each of her last four finals has been tough viewing, in these circumstances, and it’s often difficult to appreciate how well the eventual winner has played in said final.
Similarly, following and focussing on Murray at a time where he was constantly denied more major titles that he deserved by Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal made it hard to appreciate the quality of his opponents, but with Murray’s debilitating hip injury rendering it impossible for him to compete once again at the top level, I switched on the French Open Final, hoping to be entertained.
If someone had told me the margin would be 6-0, 5-1 after the first 12 games, I wouldn’t have expected to have been impressed with the quality of tennis, yet Rafael Nadal’s performance was so incredible, it made me wonder why on earth I had kept such a limited interest in men’s tennis over recent years.
Williams’ power, and therefore the pace she puts on the ball is one of the reasons why she has managed to carve out such dominance in her sport, but Nadal’s ability to generate pace with his forehand on a court that often only offers bounce and slow balls that sit up is just extraordinary.
Combine that with a touch of class at the net and an ability to land passing shots and cross court volleys on a sixpence, with close drop-shots Djokovic’s failed tactics to mitigate the Spaniard’s power, and you have the greatest conundrum not just in tennis, but in sport. How to beat Rafa Nadal at Roland Garros.
Djokovic, the greatest defender and mentally resilient player the game has ever seen, completely collapsed under Nadal’s onslaught, and though he showed every bit of his class in the third set, still could not pull one back as Nadal won at Roland Garros without dropping a single set for the fourth time.
To put that into perspective, Roger Federer achieved that feat just once in his eight Wimbledon title victories, when he had a Murray, Djokovic and Nadal-free run to the trophy in 2017. Djokovic, who was by far the strongest player between 2010 and 2020, has never managed it at any grand slam, even when he didn’t have to meet the other previously mentioned players.
When Nadal, Federer and Djokovic finally throw the towel in, it will be a sad day. I have been hoping for the next generation to come through for a while, but as impressive as they are, they will never make the game look as easy as the aforementioned trio managed to.
Even in defeat, Djokovic showed the moments of strength that have made him an all-time great, but Nadal’s performance was truly extraordinary viewing, and turned what promised to be a dull autumnal Sunday into a spectacle of sporting greatness.