It is quite possible that some Rafarians enchant those red bricks even as they are being baked and crushed, much before they are spread on the limestone – gravel surface to prepare the Red Earth of Roland Garros . It is suspected that Rafael Nadal is a Martian, which might explain his affinity for, and invincibility, on Red Clay. But what is certain is that his grit, grip, innate strength and style of play are tailor-made for incomparable success on the clay courts of Paris ,Rome , Barcelona , Madrid and Monte Carlo.
Rafa has won 12 French Opens (since 2005 ) along with 11 titles each at Monte Carlo and Barcelona, 9 at Rome and 5 at Madrid . Clay season is unofficially referred to as the Rafa Season for a long time now. During May and early June , the Nadal phenomena reaches its crescendo , even as the most common sight in the last decade and a half during this season is of the Spaniard biting into one trophy or another. That the 2020 French Open is being played in cold and damp September might not affect the end result at all.
An intrepid Conqueror once cast his longing eyes upon Roland Garros. The Emperor of All Else desperately craved for a piece of real estate on Red Earth . The King of Clay zealously guarded his Parisian principality by hammering Roger Federer in one semifinal and then three consecutive finals between 2005-08 . In 2009, the fortress did fall, but only because Rafa’s knee had creaked, Soderling squeaked and Roger sneaked in to claim his only French Open title . Rafa restored the order in the following year and kept pretenders at bay for the next five seasons . Djokovic finally slew a tired, ‘not hundred percent’ Rafa in the quarter-final of 2015 , and the next year, the champ withdrew after second round owing to wrist injury . But Monsieur Roland Garros’ spirit opened the gates of the fortress for Mr. Rafael Nadal in 2017, who extended his reign through 2018 and 2019, and now looks set to extend it in 2020-21.
Everybody in the circuit acknowledges that Rafa is the man to beat in Paris. They also unanimously concede that he is invincible when fully fit. This year, a pretentious Serb has claimed that Rafa is beatable on clay and that he fancies his own chances. Proof of pudding, as they say, is in eating the baked clay. Novak Djokovic harbours high hopes going into this year’s French Open. He is World Number One, holds an impressive 32-1 win-loss record in 2020, and is fresh from his Masters conquest in Rome. But first he has to overcome Tsitsipas and Busta to reach the final.
Novak is one of the two men who have defeated Nadal on Roland Garros. But he has also lost to him six times. Rafa overcame Novak’s pretensions in the quarter-final in 2006, and then in the semi-finals in 2007 and 2008. They played each other every year between 2012-15 – Rafa defeated Nole in 2012 and 2014 finals ,and in 2013, in a legendary semi-final. Novak finally overcame Nadal in 2015, but had to wait till the next year to claim his first and only French Open title till date. With that win, he had achieved the Djoker Slam.
Nadal leads Novak 17-7 on Clay. He has won the last three times they have sparred on clay- Madrid 2017, Rome 2018 and 2019. Nole’s loss to Rafa at Rome 2019 assumes relevance in this regard .The former had already won the Madrid Masters in 2019, while Rafa had somehow ended up losing three consecutive semis at Madrid ,Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Rafa Express seemed distracted , if not derailed, before the final at Rome. The Mallorcan handed over a bagel to Novak in the first set and won his 34th Masters title . The quality of tennis was not quite stellar, but Rafa clearly showed Novak who is the Boss on Clay . Arriveth the competition, riseth Rafa !
Djokovic has already achieved three impossibles – beating Rafa at Roland Garros, winning French Open and completing the Djoker Slam . It stands repugnant to reason, and does not seem humanly possible, to achieve these mind-blowing feats twice in any career, especially with a fully-fit Rafa in the fray. Rafa is unbeaten in 12 finals at the French Open . It is obvious that he cannot be stopped at the final hurdle.
Novak can at best hope for a clay court classic like the Madrid 2009 semi-final which lasted for 4hrs and 2minutes ,or the encore of French Open final of 2012,or the semi-final of 2013 ,all of which Nadal ended up winning despite being tested to the extremes.
Rafa has some of his own tickmarks to take care of. He always has, since he usually competes against himself .If he wins ,he would become the first player in history to win any Grand Slam 13 times, leaving behind his own record of 12 French Opens. With this win, Rafa might win his 20th Major, equaling Roger and taking a lead of three over Novak. This is too good a chance for Rafa to throw away, and have we ever seen him do that ?
Both players have eased through the draw so far. Nadal has looked ominous in his first two matches, pulverizing lesser known opponents. He might face Sascha Zverev in the quarter-final, then would be challenged by Thiem in the semis. Thiem , the next-gen challenger, who has already lost two finals, a semi and a quarter-final to Rafa at Roland Garros, must be expected to put in some kind of a token resistance, and best of luck to him. But make no mistake, the trophy is going to Mallorca, and there is precious little that the Austrian or the Serb can do about that.
The only factor that can stop Rafa from winning at the Roland Garros is the introduction of blue clay. For that you would require the services and determination of Ion Tiriac, but he is too much of a Rafa fan himself to bother. Hence, do not bother.
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