COMMENT: In the year when everything changed, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have proven their indomitable brilliance

We will remember 2020 as the year almost everything changed, and we can thank Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic for that smidgen of blessed normality.

It sometimes feels like 2020 literally changed everything. There isn’t a person on the planet who cannot say their lives have not been impacted in some way by the global events of this year.

Tennis has too, and that shouldn’t be forgotten. We are perhaps fortunate to have seen any tennis at all since the Tours were suspended in March because the challenges of maintaining a global sport in such times are immense.

However, if you are looking for an oasis of normality within the desert of dismay that has been 2020, then it’s time to truly appreciate Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

I appreciate that, for some, it can be tough to appreciate them both. Tennis is more partisan than ever but that should never be considered a bad thing. That division is borne of brilliance, and of course you can throw Roger Federer and his fans into that equation too. Mediocrity is not the breeding grounds of devotion.

It shouldn’t be forgotten back in March and April just how many ‘experts’ in the media were queueing up to predict that the ‘big three’ would be disadvantaged the most by the suspension of tennis.

‘They are older than the rest,’ they said. ‘They might decide they prefer being at home and don’t need the hassle of tennis anymore,’ they said. ‘It favours the younger players,’ they said.

The funny thing is, that they were actually right.

Rafael Nadal in practice

It’s tough to deny that 2020 has been particularly tough on both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Both have had to face challenges that went beyond their rivals.

For Djokovic, those challenges have been obvious. He has had to endure heavy criticism over the Adria Tour, been diagnosed with coronavirus, and was then butchered from pillar to post by the world’s media for little more than a desperately unkind quirk of fortune at the US Open that resulted in a high-profile disqualification.

Nadal, meanwhile, faced an awful lot of physical challenges over the summer. It’s easy to overlook them, but that doesn’t mean they should be.

The Spaniard’s devotion to maintaining a body capable of playing with the superhuman intensity that his game demands after the injury problems he has had during his career is, frankly, inspirational.

Let’s also not forget that both Nadal and Djokovic came into the 2020 season without rest as both put country first and put everything they had into both the Davis Cup and the ATP Cup.

And yet, after everything, here we are. The end of Roland Garros – the most gruelling of the four Grand Slams, played in its most punishing conditions ever, and two men remain: Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

Novak Djokovic Roland Garros celebration

They aren’t there through good fortune either, despite anything anyone wants to say about ‘lucky’ draws, the absence of Roger Federer, and the exhaustion of Dominic Thiem. They have been the best and strongest players in the competition – by far.

Some will tell you it was always inevitable, but that would ignore the many pundits and analysts who were tipping Thiem to usher them out of the limelight and claim back-to-back Slams.

It would ignore the people who almost gleefully predicted the coronavirus crisis would be the catalyst for shifting sands in tennis and the demise of the ‘big three.’

Even more relevantly, it would ignore the challenges that both players have had to face this year, and how they have managed to overcome them when many might have surrendered to them instead.

In doing so they have ensured that 2020 is not the year that men’s tennis changed, but the year that Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic proved their respective brilliance is truly indomitable, and we should never let anyone forget it.

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