Before the French Open men’s final, I thought that the result might hinge on how Stan Wawrinka felt about playing Rafael Nadal on clay. Would he feel the way he does when he meets Novak Djokovic in a major final? If so, Wawrinka clearly would believe he could win. Or would would he feel the way he does when he meets Roger Federer late in a Grand Slam? In that case, Stan would be a lot more pessimistic about his chances.
By the time Nadal had beaten Wawrinka for the title, 6-2, 6-3, 6-1, the answer was obvious: it didn’t really matter what Stan thought. Nothing in tennis history compares to facing Nadal at Roland Garros, and no mountain in tennis history has ever been as hard to climb. With this victory, Nadal won his 10th French Open; that’s the most by one player at a single Slam in the Open era. He won it for the third time without dropping a set. And he won it with the loss of just 35 games; only Bjorn Borg’s run through Paris in 1978, in which he dropped 32 games, was more stunningly efficient.
Wawrinka has made a name for himself as a big-match player over the last three years. He was 3-0 in Grand Slam finals, and he had spoiled the party for Djokovic here by redlining his way through the 2015 final. But it was obvious from the start on Sunday why playing Nadal in Court Philippe Chatrier is an entirely different challenge.
Nadal looked nervous in the early going, and he was content to begin by moving back and defending. Chatrier’s vast expanse offers more room for that than virtually any other court in the world. Through the first set, Rafa launched his topspin missiles from far behind the baseline and forced Wawrinka to hit through him if he could. Stan tried—he had done it to the world No. 1, Andy Murray, two days earlier—but this consummate rhythm player could never find a groove or work his way into a normal rally.
Wawrinka was lucky when he could take any ball in his strike zone. Nadal’s heavy-topspin forehand forced Stan to hit the ball above his shoulders, and his wide-angle crosscourt backhand stretched Wawrinka and made it hard for him to get a good swing on a forehand. Stan was always reaching.
“He made me hesitate,” said Wawrinka, who maintained that he “felt fit” after his five-set win over Murray two days earlier. “Then he was playing so aggressive. He doesn’t give you any time, especially on clay with the high bounce.”
After winning the first set, Nadal’s early nerves dissipated. He relaxed, moved forward, and began dictating. He was so confident that he came up with the shot of the tournament, a no-look running slap forehand into the corner that Wawrinka could only applaud. But as brilliant as that highlight-reel forehand was, it was Nadal’s backhand that did the lion’s share of the damage. No longer just a rally shot, Rafa has strengthened it over the last two years, and the payoff came today. I had expected Wawrinka to hurt Rafa with his crosscourt forehand, but if anything, the opposite was true. Nadal’s backhand was more than up to the test.
The same could be said for Rafa’s serve. That’s another shot that, with advice from new coach Carlos Moya, he has turned into a weapon this season. While his first-serve percentage was lower than normal, Rafa made up for it by getting free points when he needed them. He saved the only break point he faced, in the third game, with a service winner, and got out of a shaky game at 2-2 with a second-serve ace that fooled Wawrinka.
“He doesn’t give you any freedom with his serve,” Stan said. It isn’t often that Nadal’s opponents point out the strength of his serve, but he’s made it worthy of mention this year.
Was this Nadal’s best run at Roland Garros? Wawrinka thought so, but it’s hard to compare. At 21, Rafa may have been faster and more physically powerful, but his game at 31 his game is more complete.
In that sense, his 2017 is starting to resemble his friend and rival Roger Federer’s. Over the last year, Federer endured injury and came back hitting his backhand and return better than ever, and now Nadal has done the same. Federer turned his story from one of decline to one of resilience and evolution, and now Nadal has done the same. Federer ended four Slam-less seasons with his 18th major in Australia, and now Nadal has ended two Slam-less seasons with his 10th win in Paris.
“I worked a lot to be here,” Nadal said when he was asked if he ever doubted another major title was in the cards for him. “I was playing well since the beginning of the season. I thought, ‘If I’m healthy, I’m going to have my chances.’”
Nadal is 79-2 at Roland Garros. What may be most impressive is the fact that, on a court where he had never been beloved, he has won all 10 finals he has played without ever having to go to a fifth set. He has tamed his nerves every time, weathered rallies by his opponents every time, and closed the door early every time.
Wawrinka, as expected, tried to rally in the third set. Down 1-3, but with a game point, he flapped his arms and urged the crowd to help him. Then he belted a perfect inside out forehand that looked like it was going to be a winner. Except that it came back. So Stan belted another perfect forehand crosscourt, which also looked like it was going to be a winner. Except that it came back.
A third time Wawrinka appeared to have the point won, before Nadal reached down and threw up a high lob that landed a foot inside the baseline. When Wawrinka missed the overhead, the air went out of the arena, and out of Stan. Nadal had, as he had so many times before in Chatrier, rendered his opponent’s perfect shots useless.
And as he did after his first title in Chatrier, at 18, Nadal celebrated by falling onto his back, just behind the baseline. How does a player win a tournament 10 times? I said it after Rafa won La Décima in Monte Carlo this spring, and I’ll say it again after his La Décima in Paris: By playing every match as if it’s his last, and celebrating every win as if it’s his first.