“What happened in Monte Carlo happened, and what happened in Barcelona happened, and what happened in Madrid happened. And here we are. We are in Rome.”
That was Rafael Nadal’s now-legendary summation—the “happened”s were pronounced, Rafa-style, “happa-ned”—of the first three events of his 2019 clay-court season. What awful, unnameable thing happa-ned to him in those cities? Rather than winning two, or all three, tournaments, the way he traditionally has for the last decade and a half, Nadal lost in the semifinals each time. In today’s tennis world, this qualified as an earth-shaking event. It left many of us wondering, perhaps for the first time ever: Could Rafa not actually be the favorite to win the French Open this year?
You can probably guess what happened next. Nadal won his ninth title at the Foro Italico, avenged himself on the man who beat him in Madrid, Stefanos Tsitsipas, in the semis, and held off his biggest rival, Novak Djokovic, in the final. In the process, Rafa set the tennis world back on is axis, and answered all of our questions about his status going into Roland Garros.
We didn’t know it at the time, but Rafa’s resurgence began with his first win in Rome, a 6-0, 6-1 drubbing of Jeremy Chardy. On its own, that might not have augured anything in particular, but Rafa followed it with 6-1, 6-0 win over Nikoloz Basilashvili, and a 6-4, 6-0 win over Fernando Verdasco. Three matches, three bagels, for the first time in his career. More important, when the competition ramped up in the semifinals, Nadal’s game ramped up with it. Against Tsitsipas he did all of the things he failed to do against him in Madrid, and to top it off, he handed Djokovic the first bagel in their 54 matches against each other. Nadal’s 6-0, 4-6, 6-1 win gave him his 34th Masters 1000 title, and his first title of any sort in 2019.
Nadal was happy to hold the trophy, but the deeper satisfaction and relief came from knowing that he had worked himself into Slam-winning form this week.
“For me, the most important thing is to feel myself competitive, feel myself healthy,” he said, “and then with the feeling I am improving.”
Physically, the cards were stacked in Rafa’s favor on Sunday. While he had been battering his way through the quarters and semis without much resistance, Djokovic had survived two late-night, three-set matches on Friday and Saturday. Not surprisingly, he was a step slow against Nadal to start. That was more than enough for Rafa to race through the first set.
Nadal started by breaking serve, holding at love, and breaking again. By the end of the third game, Djokovic had been reduced to tossing up borderline-hopeless moonballs with his backhand. Nadal wasted no time pounding one of them past Djokovic to go up 3-0. That was just one of many winners that came from Rafa’s forehand side today—the bending ball crosscourt, the running down-the-line slap, the inside-out rally-finisher: Nadal had them all working in the first set.
“I played a great first set in all aspects,” Nadal said. “No mistakes. Playing so aggressive, changing directions. these kinds of days happens. It’s not usual, and probably will not happen again.”
Even a step slow, though, this was still Djokovic. This was still the player who had dismantled Nadal in their last meeting, at the Australian Open. This was still the player who had beaten Rafa at the Italian Open in 2011, 2014, and 2016. This was still the player who, more than any other, gets into Nadal’s head. And he briefly made it in there again on Sunday. Despite out-playing Djokovic nearly the entire day; despite going up 0-40 on his serve at 3-3, and having another break point at 4-4; despite Djokovic never really finding his range or looking all that confident, Nadal still played the most nervous game of his week while serving at 4-5, and handed Djokovic the second set.
But after letting his nerves get the better of him, Nadal immediately banished them again. In Djokovic’s opening service game of the third set, Rafa came out with renewed aggression and energy, and broke serve. When Djokovic reacted by slamming his racquet down and bending it in half, it was clear that the momentum had turned again. Djokovic would never get it back; he could never create the baseline patterns with his backhand that have worked for him against Rafa in the past. Nadal’s 6-0, 4-6, 6-1 win was his first over the Serb since they played on this court a year ago, but his third straight on clay.
“I was just running out of fuel a little today,” Djokovic said. “Just kind of missed that half a step, especially on the backhand side. He used it very well....He was just too strong today.”
So now we know, if we ever didn’t: Nadal is the favorite to win the French Open. In this case, though, I wouldn’t say he’s an overwhelming favorite. He won’t want to see Fabio Fognini, who beat him in Monte Carlo, in his quarter; matches against Roger Federer or Nick Kyrgios would be must-see TV; Dominic Thiem is due for a better showing against him at Roland Garros; and Djokovic always makes him nervous, even on clay.
Still, what happened in Rome was this: Nadal reclaimed his clay throne, and reminded us that he can reach levels on this surface that no one else has ever reached, or will ever reach. What’s going to happen in Paris? Rafa may already have answered that question for us.