COMMENT: Rafael Nadal achieved rare tennis perfection to avenge painful Melbourne mauling

You would think, wouldn’t you, that Rafael Nadal being brilliant at Roland Garros would be the very least surprising thing tennis has to offer.

For a decade and a half now, Nadal has been dominating this particular Grand Slam to level that is completely unprecedented in our sport.

And yet, I defy anyone to try to claim that they were not watching with slack-jawed awe as Nadal demolished Novak Djokovic on Court Philippe Chatrier on Sunday.

“I am more surprised, I didn’t think Rafa was going to play this well,” former world number one Mats Wilander said during Eurosport’s coverage of the final.

Even Djokovic, who is well known for his meticulous preparation and analysis of opponents before matches, admitted he was taken unawares.

“He did surprise me with the way he was playing,” Djokovic told the press. “The quality of tennis he was producing, the level… I mean, he’s phenomenal.

“He played a perfect match, especially in the first 2 sets.”

Rafael Nadal forehand

Much of our surprise is due to Djokovic himself, and there is little harm in admitting it. We have watched Rafael Nadal do this to countless people on the clay of Roland Garros over the years, but to do it to Djokovic was something else entirely.

This was, after all, supposed to be the year when the advantage lay with Djokovic. He came into it without losing a single (completed) match this year, and the conditions, we were told, favoured him.

“Nadal has no chance in these conditions, on this clay and with Novak, who has got into his head,” boldly predicted Goran Ivanisevic, one of Djokovic’s coaches.

Even the Nadal camp itself seemed wary, with Toni Nadal admitting: “It is a final that is going to be complicated [for Nadal] because there are a lot of factors in favour of Novak Djokovic.”

How much that was just a case of trying to jinx Djokovic only Uncle Toni knows, but it is undeniable that many of the games leading lights were lining up to predict Nadal would lose his crown in this strangest of all French Opens.

While Nadal’s 2008 win at Wimbledon against Roger Federer probably remains his greatest day, this will likely go down as the match in which Nadal achieved his tennis perfection.

In two sets he made just three unforced errors. Three. You’d have been forgiven for thinking that was a typo when displayed on television graphics during the match.

Yes, you can point to Djokovic’s poor first serve percentage and say it helped, but there is absolutely no reason to think that however many serves Djokovic thundered down the pitch, Nadal would have dispensed the same treatment.

Rafael Nadal after winning Roland Garros

There is a temptation to say ‘you know what? It’s Roland Garros, it’s just what Nadal does’ and dismiss it as borderline habitual. That, though, would be criminally disingenuous.

People don’t ‘just do’ what Nadal did on Sunday. Even Nadal. The only thing habitual about it was the genius that lay behind it, and that is something we should never allow ourselves to take for granted.

What almost certainly made it all the more satisfying for Nadal was that he had been on the receiving end of it before.

In the 2019 Australian Open final, Djokovic was similarly faultless, leaving Nadal feeling helpless to respond. That would have hurt, and the swiftness with which Nadal raised the matter in his on-court interview tells its own story.

“Congrats to Novak for another great tournament,” Nadal said before being presented the trophy. “Sorry for today. In Australia he killed me a couple of times ago [but] it’s clear today was for me.”

You can’t help but wonder how many times the memory of that Melbourne mauling had disturbed Nadal’s sleep.

Right now, it feels inevitable that Nadal will win a 14th title at Roland Garros in seven months’ time. A refreshed Dominic Thiem may present a serious threat, and Djokovic doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere anytime soon either, but it seems inconceivably unlikely we have seen Nadal’s last title at Roland Garros.

What we probably won’t see again, though, is the perfection that Rafael Nadal produced this time, and for that reason it should live long in the memory – and not just for Novak Djokovic.

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