What raises Rafa above the rest, and more French Open final takeaways

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Rafael Nadal was at his excellent and efficient self in his win over Dominic Thiem in the French Open final. (Photos by Anita Aguilar)

PARIS—Steve Tignor and Joel Drucker discuss what raises Nadal above the rest; what Thiem showed us over the fortnight; and what chance Federer might have had against either of them at Roland Garros.

*****

Joel,

First, as two writers who have been following the game since at least the 1970s, I think we have to start by acknowledging the scale of what Rafael Nadal has done, and is still doing, at Roland Garros. For me, growing up, Bjorn Borg’s six French Open wins and five Wimbledon wins were the legendary men’s title numbers that loomed in my mind. The idea of anyone with 11 in one place would have seemed laughable. But here Rafa is with as many here as Borg had in Paris and London combined.

As the win count and title count continue to climb, there’s a tendency to take his clay dominance for granted. But even today, in what was nominally a routine straight-setter over Dominic Thiem, Rafa had to earn it.

There’s tension involved in any Grand Slam final, and which you can really only feel when you’re in the arena. Today there was also high humidity in Paris, which Rafa mentioned more than once during the match, and which eventually caused his hand to cramp. And I’m still amazed that in all of Nadal’s 86 wins (against two defeats) at Roland Garros, he’s never played what could be called a home match. The Parisian crowd doesn’t hate him, but it’s always ready to roar for his opponent, whoever it may be. Rafa just blocks it out and wins anyway—every time.

What did you think of the match itself, Joel? For the first two sets, I thought it was a pretty standard Nadal grind-down. He scrambled, he hit high and heavy, and he forced Thiem to take one too many gigantic cuts at the ball—we’ve seen how that story ends. But at the start of the third, Nadal seemed to relax and find a much cleaner hitting groove, especially on his return. And I’d say Rafa was even better after his hand cramped at 2-1. He wanted to get it over with, and he did. Put this win together with his more-masterful semifinal victory over Juan Martin del Potro, and you have a tournament-ending twosome of matches that can rank with his best here.

For me, the match against Thiem was close enough that it made me remember again what I’ve always thought separated Nadal from the rest of us normal, mortal tennis players. He can get tight, and he can even choke, like everyone else. But he also has the unique ability, after nervously leaving balls short, to suddenly loosen up his arm again and smack an aggressive winner to get himself out of danger. Today, it happened when he was 4-2 up in the second set and serving. Rafa hit a forehand wide, left a ball short for Thiem to clobber, and went down break point. But then he had the wherewithal to place a drop shot right on the sideline—it wasn’t a bailout drop shot, either, but a strategically sound one—and hit a winning passing shot to get back to deuce. It’s his response to nerves—to basically dismiss them when he needs to—that has always amazed me most about Rafa.

What did you think of Nadal’s performance, Joel, and of the man I’ve hardly mentioned yet, Dominic Thiem?


WATCH—Championship point from Nadal's win over Thiem at Roland Garros:


Steve,

Let’s start with Thiem. The good news is he might well win Roland Garros. The bad news is that, amazingly, at 32, Nadal might well be even more ravenous than he was when he won it the first time he played it at 19 back in 2005. Who knows when Rafa will tire of sinking his teeth into La Coupe des Mousquetaires?

But back to Thiem. His game strikes me as not just contemporary, but even futuristic—that is, the shape of what it might take to topple tennis’ current rulers. Del Potro is a fantastic player, but in his semifinal against Nadal, his shots were frequently penetrating, but they were also linear, flat, hit more through the court in the old-school style that even harkens back to the 1930s and such greats as Ellsworth Vines and Don Budge (pardon my pedantic qualities).

Thiem’s ball isn’t just hard and fast. It can leap—high, off the court, jumping in all sorts of directions. While his sleek one-handed backhand will draw a swoon from many who so love both the retro and contemporary qualities of that shot, Thiem told me this week that it’s his forehand he loves most—that his forehand must be his closer. 

Still, everyone knows the toughest thing in tennis—and possibly in all sports—is to win sets against Nadal at Roland Garros. And as Roger Federer will tell you, owning a one-handed backhand versus Nadal is a contact point soft spot waiting to be turned into a cavity. So it was Thiem that had to fight off the Nadal assault and calibrate his own mix of patience and aggression. To his credit, Thiem played many fine points, particularly in the first set. There were angles, retrievals, bold strikes. But with Thiem serving at 4-5 in the first set, Nadal also showed off one of his major improvements over the last 18 months. It’s tough to spot this on TV, but in person, you can see that Nadal is hitting his backhand with more topspin—of course nowhere as much as on his forehand, but with enough loft to generate increased margin, height and depth. This only adds to the contact-point challenges. So it was that Thiem in that game lost his serve at love. 

As for Nadal, I thought it was fitting he was given the trophy by his fellow master of clay-court longevity, Ken Rosewall. Rosewall and Nadal are the only people to have won this title in their teens and 30s. (They’re also, along with Pete Sampras, the only men to have won Slams in their teens, 20s and 30s.) As brilliant as each was as a youngster, we all know that in a highly competitive solo endeavor, the only way to keep winning is to keep improving. In his early 20s, Nadal's slice backhand and volleys got better. More recently, he’s varied the direction of his serve a bit more and increased the proficiency-frequency of his down-the-line forehand. And now, it’s his backhand—both the added topspin and being able to flatten it out. 

Earlier today, over in the TV compound where I also spend my time working, I had a chance to talk with another clay-court genius, three-time Roland Garros champion Mats Wilander. He’d earlier spoken with Rosewall, which gave Mats and I a chance to reflect on these incredible champions who can play so well for so long.

“It’s not about winning,” Mats said. “It’s about playing, about competing. That’s the game: competing.”

Such has always been the case with Nadal—his relish of the fight, the struggle, his emphasis on suffering.       

As we move forward in the tennis season, it’s interesting to note that it’s been a long time since Nadal has made much of an impact at Wimbledon. He got to the finals five times between 2006 and 2011, including two title runs, in 2008 and 2010. But since 2011, not one trip to the quarters.   

Steve, do you think such factors as Nadal not playing at all in February and March make him fresher and more dangerous at Wimbledon? Or is it that once again, he’s given his all to clay and won’t have quite enough for a major go at SW19? 


WATCH—Daily Serve discusses the championship match between Nadal and Thiem:


Joel,

There’s a reason we’ve thought of Thiem as a potential successor to Nadal for a few years now, and why Rafa himself said that the Austrian would win the French Open eventually—assuming, of course, Nadal isn’t there to meet him in the final.

Thiem extends the trend that began with Gustavo Kuerten and his Luxilon strings at Roland Garros in 1997: more massive and vicious topspin. Thiem doesn’t just make his forehand dive into the corners; he does the same with his one-handed backhand and his kick serve. I’m not sure anyone has thrown his body into the ball with the lunging abandon that Thiem does. At times, when he jumps straight into the air to hit a ball from behind the baseline, it can seem counterproductive. But these two weeks were a solid step forward for Thiem, who I thought had hit a plateau over the last 12 months, and who has seemed unwilling to take enough weeks off during the season so he can peak for the Slams. This time he peaked, and showed that he’s durable enough to make it through a major.

But what do you think of that backhand, Joel? It’s amazing to watch, but even Thiem said this week that players with one-handers have vulnerabilities, most obviously the high-bouncing ball to that side. Since 2004, only Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka have won major titles on the men’s side with single-handers. We’ll see if Thiem’s proves to be a liability at any point, especially against his young two-handed rival Alexander Zverev. Either way, as Thiem told you, his most important shot will always be his forehand.

You asked what I think of Rafa’s chances on grass this year. While I’d love nothing more than to see him face off against Federer in a 10-year-anniversary reprise of the 2008 classic on Centre Court, I don’t see any real reason to hope for it. He has lost early, and sometimes badly, at Wimbledon since 2012; so early that he has hinted at giving up on his belief that he’ll ever reach the later rounds at Wimbledon again. As you said, Nadal has improved his backhand; while that improvement hasn’t been as drastic, or as celebrated, as Federer’s own backhand rejuvenation, it has been just as important to his return to No. 1.

Still, Nadal may have lost something crucial at Wimbledon, something we talked about when we discussed Novak Djokovic last week: locker-room aura. Since Lukas Rosol upset him under the roof in 2012 by serving huge, belting everything as hard as he could, and pressing forward, other players have come out believing they can successfully use that template, too. Dustin Brown, Nick Kyrgios and Steve Darcis all knocked Nadal out with that mentality. If guys like Brown and Darcis can pull it off, others must feel they can, too.

Speaking of Wimbledon, let me pose another question: How do you think Federer might have fared against Nadal at Roland Garros today? He has won their last five meetings, and I was hoping to see him take another crack at finally beating Rafa here. Federer had to stand as good a chance as Thiem, right? Maybe. For all of Federer’s success over the last year and a half, I still go back to his record against Rafa on dirt: He’s 2-13. If he couldn’t beat him here in three of his glory years, 2005, 2006 and 2007, I’m not going to go out on a limb and say he could have done it in 2018.

Leaving Roland Garros, I’m left thinking of your comparison between Nadal and the champion here 50 years ago, Ken Rosewall. I’m thinking specifically of two shots that Rafa hit in the semis and final. They were the same: A running defensive backhand lob that he lofted up from far back in the court, and which ended up landing right on the line and winning him the point. His two opponents, del Potro and Thiem, each had the same reaction: They looked up at their player boxes in disbelief and rage. Which wasn’t surprising, because each came on a crucial point, and helped Nadal sneak away with the first set.

To me, it shows that for all of Nadal’s consistency, stamina, competitiveness and muscularity, he’s also a shot-maker with a fine touch who can do anything on a tennis court (except, maybe, dig out low volleys on a regular basis). Nadal won this tournament with forehand winners, of course, but he also won it with drop shots, lobs, stretch volleys, body serves and cat-and-mouse play around the net. Underneath the bigger racquets and louder grunts, it’s a game that Rosewall—whose nickname was, after all, Muscles—would recognize. And it’s a game that tennis fans should appreciate in its entirety.


WATCH—TenniStory on the Rafa Nadal Academy in Mallorca, Spain:


Steve,

Let’s continue a bit with the Rosewall-Nadal comparison. Though there’s a massive stylistic connection between Rosewall and Federer in such areas as footwork, balance and ball-striking, where Rosewall shares common ground with Nadal is that each will likely always be slightly in the shadow of someone even more popular who racked up big results. For Rosewall, it’s the man he beat in that 1968 Roland Garros final, Rod Laver. For Nadal, of course, it’s Federer.

Though Federer wasn’t here, it’s fun to assess what might have been. As you said, a great many people wondered all winter if Federer was going to play at Roland Garros, particularly since he’s won his last five matches versus Nadal. I never thought this was a serious likelihood, and as I virtually inhaled clay over the last two weeks, I think the last thing Federer would have wanted was to get entangled in arduous matches on the dirt—not just versus Nadal, but other rough customers like del Potro, Thiem, or even such disparately labor-intensive opponents as Diego Schwartzman, Fabio Fognini, Gael Monfils and so on. Roger Federer is the master of time management, be it for 10 seconds or 10 weeks. Just as Nadal points himself towards Roland Garros, so it goes for Federer at Wimbledon. 

To address your question about Thiem’s backhand: When we’re talking about backhands, Rosewall’s was as perfect for his low-bouncing, net-rushing era as Novak Djokovic’s is today. With balls bouncing much higher, two hands are clearly better than one, providing more leverage, power and the ability to withstand shots like Nadal’s lefty topspin forehand. But a backhand—be it one-handed or two-handed—is usually always more about opportunity creation than termination. The challenge for Thiem will be to continue playing boldly with his one-hander, but, as he noted, doing things that put him in place to crack open points with his forehand (as Justine Henin did too). 

Regarding the Rosewall-Nadal similarities, Steve, it’s great you brought up those superb lobs. Rosewall too was an excellent lobber, and in a bigger picture sense, what players like Rosewall and Nadal (and Laver and Federer) are able to do is come up with something not just remarkable, but surprising—well, that is, surprising to us watching. Laver once told me that of all the marvelous, seemingly surprising shots he hit in matches, he’d practiced them all hundreds of times, be it in practice sets or drills. 

Like Laver and Rosewall, Nadal is a master of this principle: perfect practice makes perfect. The fever pitch Nadal brings to his practices puts him in place to bring all his intensity to one match after another. As Nadal’s intensity ancestor, Jimmy Connors, once told me, “If you play every match like it’s the big match, when the big matches come you’re ready.”

We’ve seen this repeatedly at Roland Garros—and I’m still holding out hope that Nadal can go further at Wimbledon and maybe even square off versus Federer on the tenth anniversary of their ’08 masterpiece.

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