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ATP Players of 2020, No. 3: Rafael Nadal
Approaching unfamiliar circumstances on his terms, the chocolate craver made sure the world knew his sweet tooth for Roland Garros hasn’t waned, 15 years on.
December 09, 2020
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This week, we’re highlighting our top five ATP players of the year. Last week, we revealed our Top 5 WTA list. Click here to read each selection.
Notable 2020 Stats
Titles: Roland Garros, Acapulco
Win-loss record: 27-7
Key wins: Novak Djokovic, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Diego Schwartzman
Rafael Nadal likes chocolate—milk chocolate, to be specific. And with the right kind of indulgence readily available, it’s possible for the meticulous Mallorcan’s dependable discipline to be broken down by a force as formidable as his forehand on Court Philippe Chatrier.
In this case, that irrepressible power is his sweet tooth, one that has repeatedly persuaded the world-class athlete to raid the refrigerator even after cleaning his teeth.
“I’m trying to change that, make it less at night. My wife hides it too. Sometimes, I find the Nutella behind the cupboard,” Nadal shared in a translated interview during his appearance on El Hormiguero. “The issue is I have great self-control inside the court. I don’t get mad. I don’t throw away the racquet. But when it comes to chocolate, it’s harder, the level of self-control is different.”
The fun exchange with host Pablo Motos was a light-hearted moment where Nadal not only appeared relatable, but relaxed—a rarity in 2020, as Rafa, like everyone else around the world, processed what was happening before his very eyes when COVID-19 began dictating the shots. Through it all, he approached the circumstances on his terms—a classic Nadal-ism—and made sure the world knew his sweet tooth for Roland Garros hadn’t lost its palate, 15 years on.
Just before the pandemic compelled both the ATP and WTA tours to suspend operations for five months, Nadal had reason to be pleased after being on the receiving end of two difficult defeats in Australia. He lost his ninth straight hard-court match (a stretch of 19 successive sets) to Novak Djokovic in the final of the ATP Cup, where Djokovic led Serbia past Spain. Then, in the Australian Open quarterfinals, Nadal was outmuscled by Dominic Thiem, who prevailed in four sets by stepping up to win three tiebreakers.
Back on court in Acapulco, Nadal dismissed Grigor Dimitrov and Taylor Fritz in the final two rounds to triumph at the ATP 500 tournament. A week later, Indian Wells organizers canceled the BNP Paribas Open and Nadal’s presence in North America was cut short. We would later learn his time on that continent was done for good in 2020, when the 34-year-old opted out of defending his title at the US Open.
Over the summer, Nadal made statements like, “I miss, of course, playing tennis. But I miss normal life the most,” and, “We will make decisions thinking about what we believe will be the best for my tennis, the best for my future and the best for my body.”
When you add in the fact Nadal’s 2,000 points from the hard-court major would remain for another year thanks to the ATP’s revised ranking structure, his decision not to travel to New York hardly came as a surprise.
Before Nadal resumed his season in Rome, the world No. 2 told ATP Media, “Tennis during a lot of months is the last thing that I was worried about.” When he departed the ATP Masters 1000 event, there was some cause of concern on how long that outlook would carry over to the court—for Nadal was ousted by Diego Schwartzman for the first time in 10 career meetings to exit in the quarterfinals.
Once he arrived in Paris, skepticism only deepened. The change in balls, colder weather, lack of match fitness and a stadium with limited fans were all suggested as elements working against the King Of Clay, despite his remarkable event record and history of rising above.
“Situation is special. Conditions here probably are the most difficult conditions for me ever in Roland Garros for so many different facts,” Nadal said in his pre-tournament press conference. “Ball completely different. Ball is super slow, heavy. It’s very cold. Slow conditions. Of course, the preparation [has] been less than usual.”
What directly followed that assessment was a tournament tone-setter. A simple reminder not to overlook what lies at the heart behind the man with inimitable idiosyncrasies and a trademark bandana: a player with celebrated self-control.
“But you know what?”, he continued. “I am here to fight and to play with the highest intensity possible, to practice with the right attitude, to give me a chance. That’s the main goal for me.
“I know very well this place. Is about [being] patient, [being] positive, just trying to find the positive vibes every single day.”
One positive day became two, then four. The fifth, Nadal’s 100th-career match at Roland Garros, presented him an intriguing quarterfinal against the blossoming Jannik Sinner—with an unanticipated twist: a start time after 10:30 p.m. Sinner’s ball-striking gave the 18-year-old a shot to serve out the set, but consecutive forehand winners from Nadal brought the pair into a tiebreaker. From there, the No. 2 seed pulled away from the Italian, clinching the straight-set victory at 1:26 a.m.
An immediate rematch with Schwartzman followed. The Argentine, making his first appearance in a Grand Slam semifinal, competed admirably, but had no answers for his opponent on this day. Nadal improved to 13-0 in Roland Garros semifinals with a 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (0) victory and later watched Djokovic emerge victorious in five sets over Stefanos Tsitsipas to learn his final opponent.
The Serbian entered Sunday’s championship clash with reason to be confident in his chances to lift an 18th major crown. Djokovic hadn’t lost a completed match yet in 2020 and was the only active player with a win over Nadal on Chatrier. With showers in the area, it meant the court’s new retractable roof would be closed—thought to be a matchup advantage for the No. 1 seed.
Nadal came out like a man unconcerned about the conditions, or the competition across the net. After all, he had practiced with the right attitude and was prepared to bring every ounce of intensity required. Nadal quickly posted a bagel set on Djokovic. His stretch turned to 11 games won in 12 played. By the end of two sets, his winners to unforced errors differential was +15. The 2016 champion ensured his chief rival didn’t sprint to the finish line, but double-faulted to put the match on Nadal’s racquet. Four points later, an ace out wide brought Nadal to his knees:
A record-extending 13th Roland Garros crown from 13 finals was now his. He had completed a run to the title without dropping a set in the French capital for the fourth time. His record at the tournament improved to an astonishing 100-2. And, he was finally even with Roger Federer in the men’s Grand Slam race by reaching the 20-trophy mark. Surely this fortnight provided a sweet sensation like the chocolate he often craves? At first, he tempered it in his on-court interview.
“I am not thinking about the 20 Grand Slams. Today only a Roland Garros victory.”
After letting the taste sink in, his sweet tooth was all but fulfilled by the time he arrived for press.
“In terms of these records, of course that I care,” he said. “I am a big fan of the history of sport in general. I respect a lot that. For me, means a lot to share this number with Roger.
“The personal satisfaction is big because under the circumstances that we played this Roland Garros, even if I played an amazing match this afternoon, the conditions are a little bit not the conditions that I will choose, never, to play an event like this. I was able to adapt well.”