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Long after he had nothing left to prove, Rafael Nadal showcased mastery of the clay-court chess match yet again to make it 14 for 14 in Roland Garros finals
For two hours and 18 minutes Sunday, Rafa put on a clinic, while his opponent Casper Ruud struggled to get himself to believe he could win.
Published Jun 05, 2022
JON'S CHAMPION'S CHAT: NADAL ON HIS LATEST TRIUMPH
In the third game of the men’s final at Roland Garros on Sunday, Casper Ruud broke Rafael Nadal. When Rafa’s last forehand dropped into the net, Ruud put his head down and walked toward the sideline for the changeover. Halfway there, he looked up and saw that Nadal was waiting at the net for him to walk across and go to his chair on the other side. Ruud, slightly startled, jogged the rest of the way so that Nadal wouldn’t have to stand there for long.
It was a sign of Ruud’s good manners, and the relationship between the 36-year-old Spaniard and the 23-year-old Norwegian, who has spent considerable time training at Nadal’s academy. One of them is the idol, the other is the idolator. One is the master, the other is the student. Most important, one was trying to win his 14th French Open final; the other was thrilled to be in his first.
The match played out exactly as you would expect between them. For two hours and 18 minutes, Nadal put on a clinic in clay-court tennis, while Ruud struggled to get himself to believe he could win, struggled to gain control of rallies, struggled to put his backhand return in, and ultimately failed to find any foothold in the match. Nadal’s 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 win was one of the most straightforward of his 14 final-round victories in Paris.
Nadal didn’t have to mount a stunning comeback, or bring the crowd to its feet with a miracle passing shot. But after struggling with a rib injury and foot pain in the months before, to persevere and win another time meant a lot to him. Before each match, he had received an injection to numb his foot.
“For me, [to] have this trophy next to me again means everything, no?” he said. “So, yeah, have been emotional victories, without a doubt, unexpected in some way. Yeah, very happy, no? Have been a great two weeks, honestly, no?”
This match wasn’t among Nadal’s most memorable here, but it was one of his most quietly commanding performances on the Chatrier stage. Once again, he showed off his mastery of the chess-match aspect of clay-court tennis.
He hit high balls to Ruud’s backhand to push him back, and then quickly stepped forward to swing the ball crosscourt into the open court. He brought Ruud forward with his forehand drop shot, and then passed him. He worked the ball at sharp angles, and then punched it down the line before Ruud could shift gears, or even make it to the other side of the court. Nadal finished with 37 winners against just 18 errors. Each time he was broken, he broke back in the following game.
“I think that the key today was my backhand, cross-backhand, no?” Nadal said. “I think that creates a lot of damage on Casper today, because I was able to open the court very well that way, and make him play with a bigger court….He was not able to move around and hit his forehand very often from his backhand side. That’s a big danger on a forehand like his one.”
Ruud admitted that he had trouble adjusting to the uniquely intense atmosphere of a Grand Slam final. And then, after he finally settled down, he ran out of ideas.
“I didn’t know exactly where to play there in the end, and he made me run around the court too much,” he said. “When you are playing defensive against Rafa on clay, he will eat you alive. I guess that’s a little bit what happened.”
Nadal’s win takes him to 22 Grand Slam titles, two ahead of Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer; he’s also creeping up on Serena Williams’ 23. If we’ve learned anything about the GOAT debate over the past 12 months, though, we should know not to make any definitive pronouncements.
Last year at this time, Djokovic’s quest for that semi-mythical title seemed unstoppable. He had beaten Nadal in Paris and won his second title there, and a month later at Wimbledon he would tie Rafa and Federer with 20 Slam wins. The future seemed to be his, and the GOAT race seemed all but over. Now it’s Nadal who has the two-Slam edge.
When you are playing defensive against Rafa on clay, he will eat you alive.—Casper Ruud
Let’s see what happens from here. Rafa has said that his chronic foot condition could bring his career to an end. Rather than have it numbed with injections, he’s going to try a new treatment next week, a “radio frequency injection…trying to burn the nerve a little bit,” as he put it. If it works, he’ll play Wimbledon, where, for the first time, he’ll be going for the third leg of the Grand Slam.
If it doesn’t work, Nadal will have to decide whether to have major surgery. At 36, it may or may not be worth it to take that risk to prolong his career. If he doesn’t keep playing, though, he’s already had a worthy swan song with his first back-to-back Australian Open and French Open titles.
When Rafa came to Roland Garros as a muscle-bound, stringy-haired teenager, the crowds in Paris weren’t overly welcoming. At first, they didn’t like that he used his “brutal” style to beat their favorite, Roger Federer. Then they grumbled at his relentless dominance. Nadal’s uncle Toni called them “stupid” when they cheered his nephew’s defeat to Robin Soderling in 2009.
This year was different. Maybe the fans missed him during the pandemic. Maybe there were more Spanish people in the audience. Or, as Rafa himself said, maybe they realized he wasn’t going to be around, and winning their tournament, forever. Whatever the reason, they cheered him and chanted his name over the last two weeks in a way that wouldn’t have seemed possible 15 years ago. Rafa certainly heard them.
“Can’t thank enough everybody for the support since the first day that I get here, no?” he said on Sunday. “Very emotional.”
It was about time Nadal felt the love in Paris. His efforts to win this title over and over haven’t just elevated his own career; they’ve elevated Roland Garros as well. Here’s someone who has cared enough about a tournament to keep doing whatever it took to win it, long after he had nothing left to prove there.