Rafael Nadal ended his 15th French Open in roughly the same position where he ended his first French Open, in 2005: lying flat on his back, just behind the baseline on the TV-camera side of Court Philippe Chatrier, with a smile of triumph and relief across his face.
Back in ’05, sporting a sleeveless green shirt and a lot of hair, the 19-year-old Nadal was celebrating his first Roland Garros title, which came with a four-set win over Mariano Puerta in the final. Two days earlier, Rafa had eliminated the top seed, Roger Federer, in four sets.
In 2019, sporting a yellow shirt with sleeves, and significantly less hair, the 33-year-old Nadal was celebrating his 12th Roland Garros title, which came with a four-set win over Dominic Thiem. Two days earlier, Rafa had eliminated Federer, this time in straight sets.
As they say, death, taxes, and Rafa at Roland Garros. He’s now 93-2 in Paris, and he has won more titles there than any other player, man or woman, has won at a single Grand Slam event.
Another Grand Slam champion, John McEnroe, has been there to interview Nadal after all 12 titles for NBC. This year, Johnny Mac began with the obvious question: “How?”
Nadal gave him the obvious answer: “I don’t know.”
McEnroe went on to ask if Rafa had any advice for the young athletes who were watching back in the States. This time he elicited a more useful response.
“Go every day with the goal to improve something,” Nadal said. “Enjoy the work of every day.”
Rafa’s answer explained a lot about his 15-year, Groundhog Day-like journey from 2005 to 2019 in Paris.
Thirty-three-year-old athletes are not supposed to be better—physically, mentally, or any other way—than they were at 19. Experience tells us that they lose a step in their legs, and they let doubts seep into their minds more easily. In the past, this has proven to be doubly true for tennis players; in a sport that rewards fast-twitch muscles and fearless attitudes, teenage champs have been more common than 33-year-old ones.
All of that has changed in the era of the Big 3, of course. When Federer, who won the 2017 Australian Open at age 36, was asked whether he thought he was better in his 30s than he had been in his 20s, he said, essentially: I hope so, because otherwise I don’t know what all the time on the practice court was for.
Yet few of us, I think, believe that athletes improve as they age. Recently, TENNIS.com ran a poll that asked readers who would win at Roland Garros, the young Rafa or the old Rafa. Young Rafa won in a landslide. You know what they say, “Father Time is undefeated.”
Father Time will defeat Nadal eventually, but he’s going to have to make a serious comeback to do it. In virtually every aspect of the sport, the Rafa of today is better than the Rafa of 2005. As he said, he has “gone every day with the goal to improve something,” and that mindset has paid off.
Start with his serve. Nadal has joked in the past that when he first joined the tour, he had the worst serve in the game. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but his serve now bares little resemblance to the one he spun into the middle of the box as a teenager. During this past off-season, Nadal developed a new motion, one which helped take him to the Australian Open final. It was just as helpful in Paris. Against Thiem, he made 73 percent of his first serves and won 73 percent of his first-serve points. When Thiem earned two break points early in the fourth set, Nadal saved the first with a slice serve wide, and the second with a flat serve down the T that surprised Thiem.
Next we go to Rafa’s volley, which was nearly as important as his serve. Again, this is not a shot Nadal was famous for in his youth, but his ability to end points with it was a big part of what separated him from Thiem. Rafa was 23 of 27 at net, compared to Thiem’s 12 of 15. Nadal charged forward at every opportunity, anticipated well up there, and came up with a couple of drop volleys that Thiem could only applaud. Thiem kept applauding in the interview room.
“If you ask all the men in professional tennis, I mean, almost everyone will tell you that he’s one of the best volleyers of our game,” Thiem said. “Most of the time he’s so successful because he prepares the point well, and then he has an easy volley. But still, he puts them away.”
“The last time he missed a volley was maybe seven years ago,” Thiem added with a smile.
“Was so important to not lose court [position] against him,” Nadal said. “Because if not from few meters back, so difficult because he’s very powerful with his forehand.”
Finally, we come to Nadal’s backhand. When he was younger, Nadal did little more than keep the rally going with that shot, and it could be vulnerable to a relentless attack. This year, first against Federer and then against Thiem, Nadal’s backhand was every bit as lethal and impenetrable as his forehand. In 2015 and 2016, when his forehand was misfiring, Nadal needed to shore up his backhand, and he did.
If Nadal isn’t as fast as he was in 2005, it doesn’t seem to make any difference; he tracked down virtually every Thiem drop shot on Sunday. If anything, he knows how to use his energy more efficiently now than he did at 19—he still fist-pumps, but he doesn’t throw in the scissor-kick leaps as often as he once did. And when doubts creep into his head, the way they did at the end of the second set, he’s quick to banish them by going back on the attack, the way he did in the third set. Yes, experience has taught Nadal that things can go wrong, but it has also taught him that the best way to make them go right again is to take matters into your own hands.
In practice, Nadal is known for bludgeoning every forehand that comes his way. But if you stick around long enough, you’ll also see him engage in animated discussions with his coaches about the smallest of technical details. Add that up over 15 years and, as Federer says, it would be a shock if it didn’t make him a better tennis player.
Of course, the wear and tear has taken its toll on Nadal. Today he talked about how down he was after hurting his knee in Indian Wells and playing so poorly in Monte Carlo. At the next event, in Barcelona, he said he had to decide between taking time off, or trying to “change the dynamic” and get a little bit better each day. Was there ever any doubt about which course he would choose?
“Thinking a lot, finally I think I was able to change and was able to fight back for every small improvement that I was able to make happen,” he said. “Since that first match against [Leonardo] Mayer in Barcelona, I think the things have been improving every single day.”
“Of course, have this [French Open] trophy with me means a lot. But personally, the personal satisfaction of change the dynamic is the thing that I am more satisfied.”
Whether it’s technical, physical, or mental, Nadal sees every problem as a solution waiting to happen. That’s how you end up better at 33 than you were at 19. That’s how you give Father Time a run for his money. That’s how win 12 titles at Roland Garros.