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Rafael Nadal, a 12-time French Open champion, has never lost a final at Roland Garros and has never been pushed past four sets. He could tie Roger Federer on Sunday with a 20th Grand Slam singles title, a men’s record.
Novak Djokovic, the top seed and a 17-time Grand Slam singles champion, is on a quest to win each of the four Grand Slam events for a second time and to eventually catch his rivals in major titles.
Nadal is playing about as good as it gets.
The best tennis player in the world, in a year when he finishes the year at No. 1, wins no more than 55 percent of the points he plays. Dominance in tennis is a lot more subtle than most people realize.
But there is nothing subtle about what Nadal is doing to Djokovic. During the first two sets, Nadal has won 66 points to 44 for Djokovic. In the second set, it was 34-25. That is about as dominant as a player can be, especially against the best player in the world.
Djokovic had a plan — use a backhand drop shot to Nadal’s backhand. Nadal knew this was coming and he is playing that way.
As Mike Tyson used to say, everyone has a plan until they smacked in the mouth. Nadal has smacked Djokovic in the mouth. Does Djokovic have a Plan B?
Nadal wins the second set 6-2.
He hit more than 140 coming into the final and has not deviated from that plan against Nadal. But he has had only limited success.
He has hit a handful of winners but also experienced plenty of disappointment. Nadal so far has covered the shot effectively, hitting several winners off it, including two crisply sliced backhand winners that let Djokovic shaking his head.
But then there has been a lot of head shaking in these first two sets, and Nadal is one set away from ending it.
Yes, we’re still checking ball marks in 2020.
French chair umpire Damien Dumusois down from his perch on a couple of occasions already to verify ball marks to determine whether shots were in or out. That is the longstanding tradition at Roland Garros and all clay-court events.
But change could be on the way. The FoxTenn electronic line-judging system was tested at the Rio Open earlier this year and was set to be used at the Mutua Madrid Open before that tournament was canceled. The French Open has negotiated with FoxTenn in the past without taking the plunge.
For now, the sport has been left in an imperfect place with chair umpires still examining ball marks and making the final calls while television networks, like NBC and Tennis Channel, use Hawk-Eye replays to check the chair umpires, even though the Hawk-Eye system is not yet approved for official use on clay.
Nadal goes up another break for a 2-1 lead in the second set.
Djokovic got on the board by winning the first game of the second set, but he’s still no match for Nadal’s consistency. Through nine games, Djokovic has hit 21 unforced errors, compared to just three for Nadal.
Nadal quickly went after Djokovic’s serve again in the third game.
Djokovic saved two break points — the first by hitting each sideline on consecutive shots and the second with a crosscourt backhand that landed behind Nadal.
But the third break point was Nadal’s after Djokovic twisted a forehand into the net.
Djokovic is hurting himself with his serve placement.
It goes without saying that Nadal is crushing Djokovic’s spirit by dominating his serve, but the problem may have more to do with Djokovic than with Nadal.
Throughout the tournament, Nadal has continued to receive serves from far behind the baseline, even as other players have crept closer into the court to take advantage of the slower, heavier ball.
The way to punish an opponent who is standing so far back is to send them a serve out wide, so that he is in a terrible position to get into the point after the return. But Djokovic’s serve, especially his second serve, is not going anywhere near the lines, giving Nadal a chance to tee off on the ball and switch from defense to offense early in the point.
That’s how you end up winning just 10 of 22 points on first serve and seven of 16 on second serve through four service games.
Nadal dominates in the opening set and wins it 6-0.
An extraordinary start for Nadal gets more extraordinary as he saves two break points on his serve to hold and then breaks Djokovic for the third time in the set, this time from 40-0.
He then held on his serve to win the first set, 6-0.
Nadal’s ball striking is crisp, his movement remarkable and his judgment close-to-impeccable at this early stage.
His 5-0 lead left Djokovic shaking his head and puffing out his cheeks even after he won points. The pressure is intense, and a lot of his playbook is in tatters, including his heavy reliance on the drop shot.
Djokovic had not previously lost a set 6-0 in a Grand Slam final. During the break, several fans serenaded him in Serbian, in hopes of lifting him up for the second set.
The one place Nadal has not had success early on is at net, winning just three of eight points so far when brought forward in the court. He also has only won seven of 15 rallies that have extended to nine or more shots.
Nadal gained an early 3-0 edge by winning twice on Djokovic’s serve.
Nadal drew first blood in this French Open final, breaking Djokovic in the opening game of the match. Djokovic showed a heavy reliance on his drop shot during the first game, hitting them early in rallies with mixed success as Nadal pounced for an opening break.
Djokovic then drew from 40-15 to deuce on Nadal’s following service game, but Nadal consolidated the break with a hold.
Nadal furthered his lead to a double break one game later, going up 3-0 as Djokovic’s cross-court backhand hit the net on Nadal’s second break point of the game.
The new roof on the stadium is closed because of rain.
With a bit of rainy weather, the roof on Phillipe Chatrier Court is closed for the men’s final. There are so few fans that the rain can be heard pelting the roof.
According to French Open policy, a match that begins with a closed roof must continue with a closed roof, even if it is sunny outside.
That makes this the first French Open final to be played indoors. But is this truly indoors?
The new roof is more of a canopy, allowing outside air to flow inside and having little effect on the temperature. But it does have two big effects: cutting down the wind and eliminating the shadows that have been an issue for players during late-afternoon matches in these unusual October dates (the shadows would not be present during the same time and in the same place if the tournament was staged in its normal May and June window).
The lack of wind should help Djokovic, whose flatter strokes have less margin for error than Nadal’s, and he also has relied heavily on the drop shot in this tournament.
But this is still red clay at Roland Garros, where Nadal’s record is second to none: 99-2.
Djokovic has beaten Nadal more often, but Nadal has an edge on this surface.
Djokovic and Nadal have the most prolific rivalry in the history of men’s professional tennis, with the French Open final serving as their 56th career meeting.
Djokovic, who has won 29 of their previous 55 matches, has also won 14 of the last 18. That includes their last Grand Slam final, in which he dominated Nadal, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3, in last year’s Australian Open final. The match lasted just over two hours.
Nadal, however, has won the last three matches the two have played on clay, most recently in the Rome final last year, and 17 of 24 clay matches over all.
Nadal has won six of their seven matches at the French Open, including the finals in 2012 and 2014. However, it will be fresh in his mind that his last defeat at Roland Garros, way back in the 2015 quarterfinals, came at the hands of Djokovic.
Experts are divided on this match: oddsmakers have Nadal as a slight favorite, while the analytics website Tennis Abstract puts Djokovic’s odds of winning at 54 percent.
Nadal, nicknamed the King of Clay, could win his 100th French Open match.
Nadal, the long-reigning King of Clay, arrives at the French Open final on Sunday with a 99-2 record at Roland Garros and a chance to hit some big round numbers with a 100th win at the tournament and a 20th Grand Slam title.
Nadal had less tournament preparation for this event than ever before, however. After skipping the United States Open, Nadal lost in the quarterfinals of the Italian Open in Rome, which was his only warm-up event on clay and the only event he had played since winning a title in Acapulco, Mexico, in late February — just before the tour ground to a halt because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The conditions in Paris this year were considered unfavorable for Nadal, with the cold air causing the ball to bounce lower, tempering some of his heavy topspin compared with how the ball would leap if the tournament were held in June as usual. But his results seem to be unaffected: He has not dropped a set in his first six matches.
Mladenovic and Babos won in doubles after a virus-related disqualification from U.S. Open.
Forced to withdraw from the United States Open because of a mid-tournament change in policy, Kristina Mladenovic and Timea Babos channeled their frustration into another run to the French Open women’s doubles title.
They defended their title on Sunday with a 6-4, 7-5 victory over surprise finalists Desirae Krawczyk and Alexa Guarachi.
Mladenovic finished off the victory with a forehand passing shot, then dropped her racket on the clay and was soon locked in a deep embrace with Babos.
“A few weeks ago, we were unfairly disqualified from the U.S. Open,” Mladenovic said in her post-match remarks to the crowd in Philippe Chatrier Court.
She thanked Luka, her brother and coach. “Without you, I would have gone into depression,” Mladenovic said.
She dedicated the victory to Benoit Paire, the French men’s player whose positive test for the coronavirus in New York triggered a series of events that led to Mladenovic being unable to continue in the tournament after she and Babos won their first-round U.S. Open match.
“We were unlucky,” Mladenovic said of Paire.
Paire tested positive before the U.S. Open and was withdrawn from the singles and isolated in the player hotel. Contact tracing determined that Paire had extended exposure to Mladenovic and several other French and Belgian players and coaches. That group — nicknamed The Paire 11 — was required to quarantine for two weeks. Initially, members of the group signed a new agreement with U.S. Open organizers that restricted their movements and contact with other players, requiring them to stay in their hotel but allowing them to continue training and playing in the tournament.
But Nassau County health officials, who had jurisdiction over the player hotel in Long Island, later enforced a stricter quarantine. Mladenovic, the last of the group still in contention at the U.S. Open, was no longer allowed to leave the hotel. She and Babos were unable to play their second-round match with Gabriela Dabrowski and Alison Riske.
This final plays right into the Greatest of All Time debate.
Much as last year’s Wimbledon final between Djokovic and Federer was, this could be a crucial match in determining who finishes with the men’s record for Grand Slam singles titles.
Federer, 39, who has not played since January and has undergone two knee operations, holds the lead with 20 Grand Slam singles titles. Nadal, who sits at 19, can tie that record with his 13th French Open title on Sunday. And Djokovic, who has won 17, can pull within one of Nadal with a win on Sunday. Djokovic would also become the first man in the Open era to have won each of the Grand Slam events twice.
A question for Federer and his fans to ponder on Sunday: Which potential champion more jeopardizes Federer’s ultimate standing when all is said and done?
Djokovic has had a messy 2020.
Novak Djokovic has had one of the best seasons in tennis history when the ball has been in play, and one of the most messy when it has not been.
He has not lost a completed match all year, racking up a 37-0 record in matches played to fruition, including titles at the ATP Cup, the Australian Open, Dubai, the Western & Southern Open (moved from Cincinnati to New York) and Rome.
The caveat of “matches played to fruition” in that last sentence is necessary to allow for his extraordinary disqualification in the fourth round of the U.S. Open last month, when he was booted from the tournament after a ball he hit in anger struck a line judge in the throat, sending her to the ground gasping for air.
Djokovic has also run into myriad other issues off the court this season, including his leading of the Adria Tour exhibition event in Serbia, at which several players, including Djokovic himself, contracted the coronavirus.
When the ball is in play, at least, he has been very good.
Djokovic was challenged more in the early rounds than Nadal.
Djokovic has had the considerably tougher road to the final, both in terms of the rankings of opponents he has faced and the competitiveness of those matches. Djokovic beat the 18th-ranked Pablo Carreño Busta in four sets in the quarterfinals, completing some unfinished business, as Carreño Busta was his opponent in the U.S. Open match from which Djokovic was defaulted.
In the semifinals, Djokovic had a match point in the third set against the sixth-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas, but Tsitsipas rallied to take the set and then won the fourth before Djokovic ran away with the fifth, 6-1.
Nadal has not dropped a set in any of his six matches at the tournament so far, but he did not face any opponent ranked in the top 70 until the semifinals, in which he beat the 14th-ranked Diego Schwartzman, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (0).
But because of Nadal’s slower pace of play and longer rallies, he has spent only an hour 23 minutes less on court than Djokovic has, despite playing 24 fewer games.
This French Open looked far different than usual because of the coronavirus.
Usually held in late May and early June with tens of thousands of fans in attendance each day, the French Open made the aggressive move in mid-March to reschedule to late September and early October, unilaterally claiming a spot on the tennis calendar without consulting other tennis governing bodies.
The bold move has paid off, as the tournament was able to proceed, but not at full strength. Organizers initially hoped to have as many as 11,500 paying fans in attendance each day, but public health protocols eventually slashed that number to 1,000.
Matches at Roland Garros have had more atmosphere than those at the U.S. Open, which was completely closed off to paying spectators, but there are still more than 10,000 seats sitting empty inside Philippe Chatrier Court.
The fans inside the arena have worn masks during the matches, though they are usually clumped together in the prime seats, rather than taking advantage of the considerable elbow room available elsewhere. Pandemic protocols in Paris have tightened during the tournament, including closures of cafes and restaurants, but the tournament has played on.
The men’s tennis tour will return to Paris later this month for the Paris Indoors Masters event, which begins on Oct. 31.
Max Gendler contributed reporting.