By Jürgen Fritz, Fr 07 Mai 2021, Cover picture: Laureus-YouTube-Screenshot
He is the greatest clay court player of all time and has long been a living sports legend. Now, at the age of 34, Rafael Nadal has been named Laureus World Sportsman of the Year for the second time, ten years after his first honour. He had already been nominated for the sixth time (for his achievements in 2008, 2010, 2013, 2017, 2019 and 2020) and has now received this award for the second time. Congratulations, Rafa, what an honour!
2005 to 2012: Nadal breaks Borg’s record of 6 French Open wins
For his achievements in 2020, Spanish tennis player Rafael Nadal was nominated for the Laureus World Sports Award for Sportsman of the Year for the sixth time and was voted winner for the second time on Thursday evening (06 Mai 2021). Due to the Corona pandemic, the honour took place online from Seville. Nadal received the award mainly for his 13th triumph at Roland Garros, which also set Roger Federer’s eternal world record; both now have 20 Grand Slam titles.
The victory at the French Open in October 2020 is now regarded as a kind of moon landing of the sport and one of the greatest achievements ever made by an athlete. When Björn Borg won six times on the red clay at Roland Garros between 1974 and 1981, it was thought to be almost impossible to repeat at perhaps the toughest tournament in the world. The great Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl and Gustavo Kuerten managed just half as many French Open victories as Borg. But then in 2005 Rafael Nadal came along and won the Roland Garros title for the first time just two days after his 19th birthday. In 2011, at just 25 years old, he already set Björn Borg’s record, but only to beat it the following year. And this perhaps greatest love story not only in tennis – French Open and Rafael Nadal – was to continue for a long time.
2014: Nadal also breaks Max Décugis‘ record from 1914, wins Roland Garros for the ninth time
In 2014, Nadal won his ninth Roland Garros title at the age of 28. No other tennis player had ever been able to win a Grand Slam tournament in men’s singles more than eight times, not even in the 1900s and 1910s when the French Championships were not yet a major international event but almost exclusively French amateurs were allowed to participate. Under these conditions, Max Décugis (born in 1882) had won eight titles in Paris from 1903 to 1914. But even this ancient record under completely different conditions (only amateurs, almost exclusively French) had now been broken by Nadal.
Now Nadal slackened somewhat, no longer played at the same level as the ten years before. (He was also the first tennis player to win at least one Grand Slam tournament every year for ten years in a row). In 2015 and 2016, others now won in Paris (Wawrinka and Djokovic). During these two years, many thought that Rafael Nadal’s great era with his energy-sapping style of play was slowly coming to an end. But far from it.
2017 to 2019: Rafa’s comeback and three more French Open titles now over 30 years old
In 2017, the clay court king came back and won his tenth Roland Garros title at the age of 31. The Majorcan had won the French Open as a teenager, eight times in his twenties and now as a 30-something. Unbelievable!
But even with that, Rafa hadn’t had enough. In 2018 and 2019, he added two more wins at Roland Garros on top, titles eleven and twelve. Now he had done the Borg twice, although even the simple Borg was thought to be unrepeatable. Twelve French Open titles! Unbelievable!
2020: Everything is different this year
Then came 2020 and with it, from March, the COVID 19 pandemic. No professional tennis could be played on the big stage for almost 25 weeks. The French Open was postponed from May/June to late September/October. Now everything spoke against Nadal. Rafa had cancelled the US tournaments in August and September on Hartcourt, even though he was the defending champion at the US Open. He went into Roland Garros 2020 with almost no match practice, had only played three matches in Rome on clay and surprisingly lost the third outright. The temperatures in Paris in October were freezing, the balls heavy, so Nadal’s most dangerous weapon, his extreme forehand topspin, was considerably defused because the balls did not bounce nearly as high. For the first time in 15 years, Nadal was not the big favourite.
But no sooner had the tournament started than the Spaniard was once again on track, cruising through the first six rounds without dropping a set, also beating the Argentine Diego Schwartzman, who had beaten him in Rome three weeks earlier, in the semi-finals outright in three sets. Then the final against none other than Novak Djokovic, the 2016 French Open champion and greatest player of the last decade, the reigning world No. 1, against whom Nadal had already lost 29 times in 55 matches, including seven times on clay. Djokovic was in brilliant form, having lost only one match all year and that was by disqualification at the US Open. This one defeat by match abandonment contrasted with 37 regular victories in a row. The Serb seemed almost unbeatable in this form both before and after the pandemic. But that made little impression on Nadal.
When his coaches came to him about 15 minutes before the match and revealed that the final would now also be played under a closed roof – another disadvantage for Nadal, who has won only one indoor tournament in his entire career, while Djokovic has been the best indoor player in the world for years and plays best there – the clay king replied: „I don’t care, it doesn’t change anything, I’m going to win this match.“
Nadal’s moon landing
And that was then exactly how he performed in this memorable final, now so honoured by Laureus Awards. Novak Djokovic, the world No. 1, the best indoor player, the greatest player of the 2010s, played really good tennis, alone he didn’t stand a chance from the first minute. Nadal not only beat his greatest rival of the last ten years, he literally destroyed him on court with such perfect tennis as had perhaps never been seen before on clay. Yes, the 34-year-old seemed now, 15 years after his first really big triumph in Paris, actually only at his playing peak. He outclassed poor Novak Djokovic 6-0 and 6-2, who didn’t even know what to do anymore as he was playing really good tennis. But Nadal had the better answer to everything, really everything.
Djokovic, one of the greatest sportsmen ever, who has already been awarded the Laureus Award as World Sportsman of the Year four times, did not give up and tried again in the third set after what he saw as a disaster in the first two sets, fighting and offering Rafa a great fight. But at 5-5, Rafa simply went one better and won the third set 7-5 and with it the final of the French Open 2020 with 3-0 sets, thus remaining without losing a set in the entire tournament.
13 Roland Garros and 20 Grand Slam titles
This was also Nadal’s 20th Grand Slam victory ever, as he also won the Australian Open once, Wimbledon twice and the US Open four times. Nadal thus drew level with Roger Federer, the eternal record holder, who also brought it to 20 Grand Slam victories (Djokovic won his 18th A title this year, 2021, Sampras brought it to 14).
Before Nadal, there had never been more than eight victories at the same Grand Slam tournament in the history of tennis since 1877 (Djokovic now managed his ninth title at the Australian Open, his favourite tournament, in February 2021). Nadal not only topped the eight, he also topped the nine, the ten, the eleven and now even the twelve. This should be a unique achievement not only for tennis and for this he was quite rightly awarded World Sportsman of the Year.
Congratulations Rafa, you are an inspiration for all tennis players on this planet!
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