The Warrior, Reborn

Sunday, June 09, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

PARIS—A fisherman himself, Rafael Nadal knows that you have to play even a small fish carefully. Thus, there was little chance that David Ferrer, his opponent in the French Open final, would break the line and get away with the glittering lure they struggled over — the French Open men’s singles title. Showing the familiar strong but sensitive hand, Nadal reeled in Ferrer 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 in two hours and 16 minutes, and experienced the satisfaction of someone whose catch is a lot larger than he might have thought.

For with this win, Nadal wrote a new chapter in the record books, becoming the first man to win the same Grand Slam event eight times, and he also tied for third on the all-time list of Grand Slam champions. Both he and Roy Emerson have 12 major singles titles.

“The feeling on court was a great.” Nadal said afterward. “I think the score is much easier than what the match is today.  I think for moments I played great; I think few moments in the match I played at very, very high level. It’s a very happy, very emotional, very important victory for me.

“Five months ago nobody of my team dreamed about a comeback like this because we thought that it’s going to be impossible.  But here we are today, and that's really fantastic and incredible. I’m just enjoying a lot all these emotions since I came back.”

The atmosphere on Court Philippe Chatrier on this cold, damp day was gloomy as the players entered, more fit for the public execution that this turned out to be. And while we all know that Nadal brings his own sunshine to this particular court each time he sets foot on it, we also know that he would have preferred to meet Ferrer on a drier, faster court that might neutralize the “Little Beast’s” counter-punching abilities.

Is there anything more awkward than the pre-match photo at the net, the two players standing side-by-side, but stiff and with just enough distance between their shoulders to make you wonder if each thought the other had contracted the plague. Given what great friends Nadal and Ferrer are, the posture they struck before either of them even waved at a ball, or shouted,“Vamos,” spoke volumes.

Ferrer had obvious, excellent reasons to approach this, his first Grand Slam final, with trepidation. His pal Rafa was not just the defending champ, but the odds-on favorite, and more than one record was at stake. If Nadal won, he would also break a deadlock with Guillermo Vilas and Roger Federer for most career wins at Roland Garros (they all had 58 as of this morning).

Gulp. Did bait ever taste so bad?

Ferrrer has bagged 20 ATP titles, but none when three or more of the reigning “Big Four” (three of whom played here) were entered. Ferrer was 4-19 against Nadal going into the match, on the threshold of joining the excellent company of Federer and Novak Djokovic as men Nadal has beaten at least 20 times in his career. And while Nadal loves to play in the heat and sun, Ferrer had his own reasons for hoping for those conditions. He resolved, conditions permitting, to play more aggressively, and take advantages of opportunities to take the net.

“Today the court was slower,” he said afterward. “Was raining and is very difficult for to do winners. It's more difficult to beat Rafael when the court is slower. He has more power than me with his shots.”

Nadal’s anxieties are more easily explained with what amounts to the most elegant repudiation of statistics in sports history, his own near-paranoid conviction that he could lose to anybody, anytime — history and bolo forehands be damned. He’s got a personality perfectly capable of interpreting his brilliant semifinal win over Novak Djokovic as a warning sign: What if he peaked too early? What if he had an emotional letdown after that one? What if, what if?

The young man is downright fearful, as Ferrer pointed out to us after the match, when commenting on the protesters who interrupted the match in the second set. One of them, naked from the waist up and wearing a creepy white mask, leaped onto the court near Nadal holding aloft a sizzling orange flare.

After shrugging off the incident and insisting it didn’t booger his focus, Ferrer said, “Today was strange, no? The people singing (two chanting protesters), one person without clothes in the court, with one bengalas (flare). . . Rafael, he was scared a little bit.” Everyone in the room joined Ferrer in laughing about that, but then Ferrer was at the far end of the court when all that happened so it was easy for him to say.

By that point in the proceedings, though, Ferrer was sinking into the damp clay as if it were quicksand. The most useful stat I can summon is that in the first two sets that pretty much decided this match (Nadal has never lost a match extended to five sets on clay), Ferrer was down a break point in all but two games — the first and third of the match.

Ferrer isn’t a player well-suited to all-out, face-to-face combat with Nadal; he needs to work like a sniper (hence that aborted game plan to attack Nadal and shorten points).This reality was conspicuous during the match. When Ferrer opened up the court, Rafa opened it further. When Ferrer ran, Rafa ran further. When Ferrer hit a forehand hard, Rafa hit one harder. And — most important — when Ferrer hesitated, Rafa, well...  Rafa clobbered him.

While leather-tough and persistent as a migraine, Ferrer still hasn’t mastered those big moments in a critical matches against top players. You can’t overlook that today he was broken with ease to end the first set (the last two points were a pair of double faults). And while Nadal admittedly began to play lights-out tennis in earnest starting with the second game of the following set, Ferrer would lose that one with another disappointing service game. A pair of two double faults sandwiched between a pair of forehand errors ended the set and put the match out of reach.

“I was a bit nervous, frightened,” Ferrer admitted.  “I knew there would be some pressure on me. But he was also ‘quote,’ fearful, ‘end quote.’ I had my good moments, but he had lots of them.”

Well, there’s no shame in losing to Nadal on clay, especially in the wake of this re-born warrior’s season of discontent. There are different ways to look at the shock Nadal suffered when he had to miss nearly eight months spanning 2012 and early ’13, one of which hasn’t been explored sufficiently. Nadal has never really spoken about how the fears and sobering realizations that accompanied his travails may have actually helped him in the long run — provided him with a slightly different kind of drive that he’s had before, and even a more mature understanding of his career and his needs. After all, he had little time to lift his head from the grindstone for a long period until his recent hiatus.

“I am taking everything a little bit more relaxed,” he admitted. “Before I wanted to practice every day a lot to be 100 percent sure that I am ready, but that's not possible at the day of today anymore. Hopefully it will be possible in the future, but not today. I think mentally I accepted that situation.  When you get more experience on tour when you get older, probably you don't need to practice as much as you need when you were a junior or when you have 20 or 19 years.”

Nadal went on to say that when he was 20, and already at the top of the game, laying down his sticks for two weeks made him edgy, made him feel that he needed “a lot of time” to be 100 percent ready. He said, “That’s not happening today, last couple of years I didn’t feel that happening, and that’s a positive thing.”

He added that in the interim he’s improved his technique, presumably by focusing on it more closely. “For the moment, I cannot answer more,” he added. “The things are going more than perfect.”

Nadal pulled out of next week’s grass-court tournament in Halle, and is returning to Mallorca to rest for a week before he jets off to London to prepare for Wimbledon. While he’s home, he plans to do some fishing. It seems this 27-year old never gets tired of bringing in — and biting — those trophies, although the ones he lands next he’ll be able to actually eat, not just bite.

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