The French Open is so synonymous with Rafael Nadal that it seems bizarre to think of anyone else winning the tournament. Commentators and pundits frequently predict another Nadal victory months ahead of the event taking place.
Faced with an opponent who is the greatest clay-courter of all time, defies the ageing process well into his thirties and competes with grit, the rest of the draw must feel at a loss.
In 2020 Djokovic stormed through his half of the field with powerful flat serves and drop-shots. Yet in the final, he became remarkably unstuck. Even with the cold autumn air and a heavier Wilson ball introduced that year, Nadal prevailed in straight sets.
The Spaniard has won the tournament every year since 2005 with three exceptions – Roger Federer in 2009, Stan Wawrinka in 2015 and Novak Djokovic in 2016.
How did these three players manage to pull off such a rare feat in modern clay court tennis, and why did Nadal not seal victory?
Roger Federer (2009)
Federer’s Path Through the French Open
|First round||Alberto Martín Magret||6-4, 6-3, 6-2|
|Second round||José Acasuso||7-6, 5-7, 7-6, 6-2|
|Third round||Paul-Henri Mathieu||4-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-4|
|Fourth round||Tommy Haas||6-7, 5-7, 6-4, 6-0, 6-2|
|Quarter-finals||Gaël Monfils||7-6, 6-2, 6-4|
|Semi-finals||Juan Martín del Potro||3-6, 7-6, 2-6, 6-1, 6-4|
|Finals||Robin Söderling||6-1, 7-6, 6-4|
Federer’s 2009 clay court season was a slow but steady build-up. The first tournament in Monte Carlo resulted in a third-round exit at the hands of Wawrinka. Later in Rome, Federer progressed a little further but lost to Djokovic in the semi-finals.
Then in Madrid, everything changed. The heat and the high altitude made conditions quicker, allowing Federer to play more aggressively.
In the final against Nadal, Federer took big risks that paid off. He stayed tight to the baseline and would often step inside after serving to end the point quickly.
Using his forehand to great effect, Federer would run around Nadal’s serve to hit inside-out winners on the ad side or push Nadal back in rallies before approaching the net and volleying the ball away.
The creativity bubbled and fizzed as Federer began to serve and volley while mixing in drop-shots against his distant opponent, who chose to stand further behind the baseline. A hard assault from the Swiss resulted in a 6-4, 6-4 victory.
The conditions in Madrid enabled Federer to play the hard and grass court tactics he was so proficient in, while still giving him the belief that he could succeed on clay.
The tournament was also significant because it offered him a recent match experience against Juan Martín del Potro and Robin Söderling, two players he would later face at Roland Garros.
In Paris, Federer’s tactics were simplified. He reduced risk by approaching the net less and waited until a rally was established to finish the point.
The aggression remained, standing up on the baseline as much as possible and used the forehand to dictate play. Often Federer would use the backhand to build rather than attack until a short ball gave him the chance to hit a forehand winner. This pattern characterised the seven title-run matches.
Mentally Federer pumped himself up with cries of “Allez” rather than “Chum jetze” to the French crowd. He was graceful and precise as ever, but there was added determination and hunger.
This obvious spirit of resolve contrasted against Federer’s sense of effortlessness he had carried with him since his period of dominance began at the 2007 Australian Open.
A different mental approach was useful as Federer had a particularly tough match against his fourth-round opponent, Tommy Haas. Federer was down two sets and faced break-point, which, if lost, would leave Haas to serve for the match.
Federer faulted on his first serve attempting to serve town the “T”, but it was wide. At that point, in a breath-taking display of courage, Federer decided to serve out-wide, dance around Haas’s return and hit another inside-out forehand winner. A culmination of grit had prevented an early exit from the tournament.
In the final, Söderling was tense, hitting two aces to Federer’s sixteen and failed to convert any break-points. Federer on the other hand converted four of his six break-point opportunities and was able to beat Söderling largely from the baseline with heavy topspin and sharp angles.
A disparity in grand slam final experience considerably helped Federer to hit more freely than his opponent. Federer fans are eternally grateful for Söderling defeating Nadal in the fourth round.
Would Federer have won a match against Nadal here? This seems unlikely as Nadal has prevailed in all six of their Roland Garros encounters. Söderling for his part in a sudden burst of energy was able to out-hit Nadal with powerful groundstrokes, making sixty-three winners to his opponent’s thirty-six.
Federer vs Söderling, Roland Garros 2009 Highlights
Stan Wawrinka (2015)
Wawrinka’s Path Through the French Open
|First round||Marsel Ilhan||6-3, 6-2, 6-3|
|Second round||Dusan Lajovic||6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-3|
|Third round||Steve Johnson||6-4, 6-3, 6-2|
|Fourth round||Gilles Simon||6-1, 6-4, 6-2|
|Quarter-finals||Roger Federer||6-4, 6-3, 7-6|
|Semi-finals||Jo-Wilfried Tsonga||6-3, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4|
|Final||Novak Djokovic||4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4|
From 2014 to 2016, Wawrinka found himself in impressive form. After winning the 2014 Australian Open, it was clear he was a serious contender for slam titles outside of the big four.
His Roland Garros victory was the middle pillar of a newfound success winning the 2016 US Open a year later. Even before Paris, Wawrinka had proven his skill on clay. In 2015 most of his titles had come on that surface, including a Masters 1000 event in Monte Carlo.
One of the keys to Wawrinka’s game at the French Open and throughout his career has been the single-handed backhand. Armed with a strong chest and a sweeping finish, Wawrinka can flatten out the ball at a great pace which has several advantages.
Players competing on clay are used to higher bounces and longer rallies during the tournament. Wawrinka’s flat and laser-like backhands travelled fast and stayed low, meaning his opponents had less time to prepare a decent stroke.
His single-handed backhand also enabled him to hit sharp angles that could not easily be covered. In backhand exchanges, Wawrinka would suddenly convert the ball down the line or play an inside-out shot to the deuce court, taking his opponents by surprise who were camped out on the other side.
The backhand was so practised that it afforded him remarkable shot tolerance where sustained attacks to it would rarely force an error.
Put together these elements made Wawrinka tactically difficult to play against. His volleys in the forecourt in the matches against Giles Simon and Federer, in particular, were also well-executed. Wawrinka had a great sense of timing of when to come forward to punish a short ball, especially after a strong groundstroke had elicited a weak response.
Wawrinka vs Djokovic, Roland Garros 2015 Highlights
Djokovic’s game in the final appeared solid. Though Wawrinka gradually increased the speed of the rallies, Djokovic was able to absorb pace and keep the ball deep enough to stay in the point. He also tried to move Wawrinka around and not win the point straight away but play more cautiously, standing further behind the baseline and wait for an error to pounce on.
Wawrinka, meanwhile, had the opposite strategy. He stood closer to the baseline and took more risks. To break the defences of Djokovic, he hit the ball earlier, unloaded on passing shots and made bold trips to the net. Stan frequently used both the forehand and backhand to attempt down the line winners.
Wawrinka’s bravery reached its climax when in the third set, Djokovic pulled him out of the court with an acute groundstroke, but Wawrinka managed to thread the ball in a narrow gap between the net post and an advertising box.
“At the beginning, it’s always the same when I play Novak,” Wawrinka explained in the press conference afterwards. “I was trying to play more deep, trying to play more aggressive from the baseline and little by little I start to be the player inside the court, and that’s the way I have to play if I want to beat him. […] I was always going for my shots.”
For just the second time, Nadal had been beaten at Roland Garros. Djokovic, in the quarter-finals, played an aggressive strategy that perhaps he should have had in the final. He took advantage of Nadal’s deep position by coming forward to put away short returns and used volleys to finish points quickly.
Physically Djokovic appeared to be fresher, split-stepping nimbly before every stroke. Nadal however seemed to uncharacteristically lumber behind the baseline and had a harder time changing direction, later admitting that Djokovic was “in better shape”.
Novak Djokovic (2016)
Djokovic’s Path Through the French Open
|First round||Yen-Hsun Lu||6-4, 6-1, 6-4|
|Second round||Steve Darcis||7-5, 6-3, 6-4|
|Third round||Aljaz Bedene||6-2, 6-3, 6-3|
|Fourth round||Roberto Bautista Agut||3-6, 6-4, 6-1, 7-5|
|Quarter-finals||Tomas Berdych||6-3, 7-5, 6-3|
|Semi-finals||Dominic Thiem||6-2, 6-1, 6-4|
|Final||Andy Murray||3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4|
Djokovic’s 2016 French Open victory was an important moment in tennis history as he became the third man ever to hold all major titles at once. It also came towards the end of a period of dominance since 2015, where Djokovic’s list of Grand Slam and Masters 1000 titles had grown significantly.
Though most of his success had come on hard courts, his recent abilities on clay were also clear, winning Monte Carlo and Rome in 2015 and Madrid in 2016. Djokovic’s first three matches in Paris went relatively smoothly, winning in three sets.
Then in the fourth round, he faced Roberto Bautista Agut who’s lateral speed was so fast he could play tough shots for Djokovic even while on the defensive.
For the first time in the tournament, Djokovic had lost a set, Agut taking the first 6-3. From there, the Serb managed to mount an impressive comeback. Djokovic targeted Agut’s backhand, which was a slightly weaker stroke than his forehand, came into the net to volley and added drop-shots to take as much time away as possible.
Djokovic won the next two matches against Tomas Berdych and future finalist Dominic Thiem in straight sets, but the next challenge would be playing Andy Murray in the final.
At first, Murray was full of energy and on the offensive, returning the Djokovic serve with pace, getting to most drop-shots with ease and delivering powerful groundstrokes. In a repeat of the Agut match, Djokovic lost the first set 6-3 with fifteen unforced errors to Murray’s eight.
Gradually Djokovic’s consistency returned after the second set began. He stood closer to the baseline and was able to take charge of the rallies more often than Murray, who had found himself being moved around left and right, unable to construct points.
As Murray’s position fell deeper behind the line, Djokovic would move in and volley the ball away for an unplayable winner. Murray’s energy seemed to drain away, fatigued from shot after shot being returned to him by the brick wall of Djokovic.
In the press conference afterwards, Murray explained he was “dropping a bit far back behind the baseline…if you’re letting the best players control points, that’s tough. I wasn’t able to dictate enough points after the beginning of the match”.
Djokovic admitted it took a while to settle as “nerves kicked in, and I needed a little bit of time to really find the right rhythm…which happened at the beginning of the second and practically until 5-2 in the fourth set it was flawless tennis…putting a lot of pressure on Andy’s serves”.
Though Nadal and Djokovic were in the same half of the draw, they never met. Nadal had been struggling from a wrist injury for two weeks with an inflamed tendon sheath. Every day after playing, the pain became worse.
After competing in a second-round match against Facundo Bagnis with an anaesthetic injection, he could barely move his wrist, an MRI scan later revealing that Nadal would suffer a fracture if he continued. With dignity, he announced his withdrawal from Roland Garros, leaving Djokovic a considerably easier path to victory.
The French Open in 2021
The lessons from the three “other” winners of Roland Garros is not to play the event with traditional clay-court tactics.
The attempt of longer rallies, defensive play and caution have not served the losing finalists well. Instead, the victors have all stepped forward and dictated play from the baseline.
Wawrinka and Djokovic both made volleying a key component of their victories. With the mental bravery to go for winners, playing attacking tennis on a slow clay court is possible.
The stories of Federer, Wawrinka and Djokovic give some hope to players beyond Nadal that winning Roland Garros is a distinct possibility.