King of Clay

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Anthony L. Cuaycong-125


Rafael Nadal didn’t exactly have the best of tuneups heading into the French Open. In fact, he wound up playing just three matches at the Italian Open; his quarterfinal round stint ended in a straight-sets defeat to Diego Schwartzman, against whom he hitherto had a career nine-zero slate. Clearly, his seven-month absence from competition — owing to the novel coronavirus pandemic and borne of his refusal to play without spectators — told on his preparedness. It likewise didn’t seem to help that the major tournament changed its schedule to autumn and in type of balls used to a more moisture- and sediment-absorbent one; not a few quarters figured the conditions would stunt the powerful groundstrokes that made him all but invincible on red clay.

The turns of events understandably had conventional wisdom leaning Novak Djokovic’s way. Adding to the positive prognosis for the World Number One was the fact that he stayed active — perhaps even too active — through the sport’s forced hiatus. The ill-fated Adria Tour and his ensuing contraction of the virus notwithstanding, he seemed to have built the momentum he needed to claim his second French Open crown; he was a remarkable 37 and one for the year entering the Grand Slam stop, with the lone blemish on his record coming from an unfortunate disqualification at the United States Open. Which was why he oozed confidence as he surveyed the scene and then blitzed his way to the final. As he noted in the aftermath, “I was feeling great throughout the tournament, playing great tennis, winning in Rome, being very confident about my game.”

As things turned out, though, Nadal encountered no trouble — make that absolutely no trouble — en route to his unprecedented 13th victory at Roland Garros. He won all his contests in the minimum number of sets, and so dominant was he that Djokovic could do no better than take five games all told in the final; he even handed his supposed superior (under the aforementioned circumstances) a bagel in the first set. And because it was also his 20th major triumph to tie erstwhile clubhouse leader Roger Federer, talk naturally turned to whether his ultimate haul would place him at the top.

In typical fashion, Nadal brushed off speculation revolving around his veritable arms race with his contemporaries. Heck, he didn’t even indulge in the privilege of recognizing his status as undisputed all-time King of Clay. Instead, he saw fit to focus on his continuing affair with Paris and, in particular, Court Philippe-Chatrier. “The love story that I have with this city, and with this court, is unforgettable,” he admitted. And rather than delve on what ifs on the court, he found cause to underscore imperatives off it. “We are facing one of the worst moments that we remember in this world, facing and fighting against this virus. Just keep going, stay positive, and together, we will go through this, and we will win [against] the virus soon.” Enough said.


Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.