Sunday, October 11, 2020

Quick thoughts on today's French Open men's final

It’s going to be a nerve-wracking evening for any Rafa Nadal fan who actually knows something about tennis (and about the specific conditions prevailing at this October “French Open”) — as opposed to fans and non-fans who airily make statements like “Oh, Rafa will win easily” just because “this is clay/RG/his kingdom”.

Nope. If an “easy win” occurs today, it is more likely to be Djokovic winning in straight sets, as he did at the Australian Open 19. Some relevant factors:

1) As has been widely known and discussed since the start of this tournament, these are nothing like the clay conditions Rafa does really well in. Cool weather, low bounce, not easy to slide, heavy balls = many of his strengths are neutralised. And anyway, Djokovic has beaten Rafa even on regular clay more often than anyone else has.

2) Rafa came into this tournament with very little match practice — after the Covid break — compared to ND. Usually needs two or three clay tournaments to work himself into full RG form, and didn’t get that this year. Struggled a good deal in these conditions against Jannik Sinner for a set and a half, and Djokovic’s two-handed backhand will be more consistent than Sinner’s game was.

3) In his last press conference, he made a reference to “my old body” and how long it now takes him to recover from even moderately long matches, or to keep stamina levels high during a tough match. There is a silly tendency among some casual observers to behave as if Rafa can continue playing tirelessly for hours even at age 34, with the mileage of over 1200 professional matches and 15 full years as a top 5 player. That is a ridiculous expectation, and it certainly isn’t borne out by the events of recent years, with his notable wins coming in tournaments where he has been able to shorten points and conserve energy.

4) Djokovic’s motivation levels will be incredibly high, especially after that failed opportunity at the USO last month. Halfway through last year’s RG, Steve Flink (one of the sharper tennis writers/historians around) picked ND to beat Rafa in the final if they met there — this was a very bold prediction given how easily Rafa had won RG in 2017-2018, but Flink is good at counter-intuitive diagnoses like this. I remember how gutted ND was about losing in the semi, because he genuinely believed in his chances to win the final. He will be fired up this year, both for that reason and because of what happened at the USO.

So, Djoker is the 60-40 favourite in my view. I would, of course, be thrilled to be completely wrong. (And I’m not above hoping that Djokovic’s neck is still a bit stiff, like it was in his quarter-final.)

In my great wisdom, I scheduled the last of my Mahabharata sessions for exactly the time of today’s match, which means I’ll only be able to follow scores for the first couple of hours. Don’t know yet if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it is what it is.

Meanwhile, here is a re-plug of a piece I wrote last year about the strange nature of sports fandom. And some earlier tennis pieces here.


  1. Replies
    1. Even in October! Who woulda thought.
      (In my defence, the ball did bounce a bit more than expected today)