Anyone born in the late seventies has been witness to some of the greatest sportspeople the planet has ever seen.
Novak Djokovic, the favourite tipped by many tennis pundits to finally end the reign of Rafael Nadal, hits a perfect forehand smash down the line for the winner from the baseline.
For many, the shot would have elicited a fist pump or an “allez” or a celebration of any form, for Djokovic he could only smile in disbelief that it required a shot of such superlative for him to win a single point from the man across the net.
The shot brought the realisation of the pain to come, rather than the comfort it should have provided.
Disbelief was all over the Serbian. He had entered the tournament having only one loss to his name all year and with that loss coming via a disqualification.
He had been one of the favourites to win the major, he had what many deemed an easier draw than Nadal and he had registered a victory the last time the two met on this court.
While across the net, Nadal had entered the tournament lacking match play, he had been at odds with the balls being used, the weather was not meant to suit his style of play, the field was catching up to him, the roof was meant to lessen his game’s advantage by decreasing the rotations on his shots.
The stage was set for the world number one. Nadal was vulnerable. Apparently.
But then Nadal does what he always does at Roland Garros. He delivers. It was brutal, relentless, awe inspiring, ridiculous and most of all it was merciless. Nadal obliterated Djokovic off the court with every shot in the book.
Everything that Djokovic did, Nadal did better.
Every winner Djokovic thought he hit came back, every trick he pulled and Nadal was there, every tactic he tried and Nadal turned it against him. Worst of all for Djokovic, there was no let up. That drop in Nadal’s level never came.
From the moment the umpire called play to the final ace that Nadal hit, the Spaniard never stopped coming after the Serbian.
Nadal played with such ferocity and power that many would be forgiven for thinking that the 2019 Australian Open drubbing that Djokovic handed to him was only yesterday.
No doubt that match was on Nadal’s mind as he even brought it up in his post-match speech. If it was vengeance he was seeking, then it was vengeance he got… and then some.
The match was over in three non-competitive sets which included a bagel as if to hyphenate the performance.
By the end of it all Nadal had achieved his 13th French Open crown and the word “dominance” does not even do justice to how ridiculous that feat is.
To do what Nadal does, so many things would have had to work out in his favour: winning all his matches, his health, consistency in performance at the right time every year for 13 years. To put some perspective on this is that most players would have been happy with one or two French Open crowns, three or four would be amazing, five to seven and you’re approaching legend status but 13?
Come on now, Pete Sampras was considered the Wimbledon king back in the 90s and he won seven titles there, that’s just over half of what Nadal has achieved in Paris.
But what does this title mean to Nadal’s legacy? Nadal has said many times himself he doesn’t care for catching Federer’s Grand Slam tally and yet here we are. Both, rightly so, sitting atop the summit of men’s tennis together on 20 majors each with Djokovic now behind by three.
Nadal may not want to entertain such debate but inevitably people will discuss it. I mean, what could be more intriguing, amazing and inspiring than seeing three guys aim to be claimed the greatest of all time in their field?
So, what now for the GOAT debate after Nadal’s latest triumph?
Many consider it a point of contention that Nadal’s Grand Slam tally is dominated by his victories in Paris. While this may be true, it can be argued that Djokovic’s haul is dominated by Australian Open titles and Federer’s by his Wimbledon wins.
Secondly another point to address this is that clay court is widely considered by many to be the surface that many young players should build their foundations on as you are forced to rally due to the slower surface forcing you to work on your forehand, backhand, slice and defence.
You could argue it could be the toughest surface to win on. Victories on clay are truly earned. Cheap points are few.
But really it all comes down to the point that yes Nadal has been dominant on clay, but don’t forget that he has achieved a career Grand Slam winning all three of the other majors with two grass court conquests and five hard court majors.
For context, Agassi was considered an amazing hard court player and yet has only one more hardcourt major than Nadal, with Nadal also winning an Olympic gold medal on the hard courts in 2008.
Bear in mind not to demean Agassi’s effort, but Nadal’s majors has also come in the era of peak Federer and Djokovic.
Now with 20 majors besides his name, the GOAT debate doors have opened once again. While many can argue Federer or Nadal, the tally speaks for itself.
Both have claims right now for themselves and both could still finish with a higher tally than one another by the end of it all. Make no mistake, Federer does have another Wimbledon title in him, he was a few match points away from taking the 2019 crown.
Right now, what Nadal’s victory does for the debate is that it once again reignites it, gives another component of life to it. If it was a closed topic before, we can at least have the conversation once more.
If it was in favour of Federer or Djokovic before, it is now less so. If it was in Nadal’s favour before then it is even more so now. With each major each player tallies, the pendulum is pushed ever so slightly in the favour.
With a few years on his side than Federer, perhaps Nadal may overtake the Swiss if his body remains healthy and his motivation is there. Or perhaps Djokovic will be able to exert his dominance ala 2011 and 2015 and pass both men.
Not to mention the heirs apparent in waiting as well in Dominic Thiem, fresh of his first major at the US, Sascha Zverev, Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas are only getting closer.
One thing is certain is that adding to their Grand Slam tally will only get harder for the Big 3 as they approach the twilight of their careers while their potential successors approach their peak.
In closing, with Nadal adding another layer of ammunition for his fans to argue the case for his place as the ruler of the men’s game, we can take one thing for certain is that his victory once again has edged another dynamic of being the greatest of all time in his favour…at least for now.