Casual sports and tennis fans — those who watch the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals each year, and practically nothing else, in much the same way that casual Catholics attend Christmas and Easter Mass each year, and practically nothing else — turned on their television sets Sunday morning and watched Rafael Nadal win his 12th Roland Garros title.
“Well, DUH! Of course,” those fans probably said.
A good portion of those casual fans — probably a majority — felt this latest French Open title was inevitable.
The old phrase from TennisWorld message boards a decade ago — “aura of inevitability” — always got tossed around when Nadal lifted a trophy in Paris on the first or second Sunday of June. It certainly felt inevitable. To be honest, as soon as Nadal won his second set in any of the Roland Garros finals he has played against men other than Novak Djokovic, his titles DID feel inevitable. Near the very end against non-Djokovic opponents, not one soul in the stadium or watching at home could seriously question Nadal’s position of superiority.
So, if you want to be very precise and technical about all of this, SURE, these titles have felt inevitable… but only for 30 to 60 minutes on the final Sunday of Roland Garros.
Viewed in a much fuller and broader context, nothing about these titles — 1, 2, 3 — has felt inevitable — 4, 5, 6 — because the contexts in which these titles were achieved — 7, 8, 9 — has been so noticeably different over the years — 10, 11, 12.
This year, most of all.
There have been years when Nadal didn’t win Monte Carlo. He still won in Paris.
There have been years when Nadal didn’t win Barcelona. He still won in Paris.
There have been years when Nadal didn’t win Madrid. He still won in Paris.
There have been years when Nadal didn’t win Rome. He still won in Paris.
Yet, this year is the FIRST time Nadal has won Roland Garros after failing to win both Monte Carlo and Madrid. It is the first time he has won Roland Garros after failing to win Monte Carlo, Madrid, AND the ATP 500 stop in Barcelona.
It is the first time Nadal has won the French Open after making the final of only one lead-up tournament in the clay season (Rome). Nadal was ousted in the semifinals of Monte Carlo (Fabio Fognini), Barcelona (Dominic Thiem), and Madrid (Stefanos Tsitsipas).
There were obviously several seasons when Nadal destroyed the opposition in April and May, winning three clay tournaments before coming to Paris and leaving no doubt about his status as the overwhelming favorite. From 2006 through 2018, a span of 13 seasons one can find nine such seasons in which Nadal was obviously the man to beat, and in those nine seasons, he always came through.
Yet, in 2011 and 2014, when Djokovic stood in his way and injected real doubt into his Roland Garros campaign, Nadal prevailed anyway.
In 2019, Djokovic had established a high standard, while Nadal encountered rare wilderness moments of searching and struggle in the month and a half before Paris.
Even now — at age 33, his body not quite the humming machine it used to be, with injuries requiring more recuperation time, and with Djokovic pursuing a Novak Slam at Nadal’s expense — Rafa rose above it all.
Sure, this was inevitable at 3-0 in the fourth set of Sunday’s final… but in a larger and more profound sense, nothing about this 12th Roland Garros crown was inevitable.
Remember the oceans of doubt. Remember the rivers of uncertainty. Remember the puzzling third set against Tsitsipas in Madrid. Remember Thiem bullying him in Barcelona.
It wasn’t OBVIOUS that Nadal was going to win the French this year, no… but it also wasn’t worth panicking and thinking that the sands of terre battue had shifted.
They shift only when Rafael Nadal says so.
In 2019, Rafael Nadal said NO… and he said yes to an even more exalted place in the history of the life… and the tennis.
If you were to pick one thing — one, alone — to trust in modern 21st-century tennis, can there be a better answer than Nadal in Paris in June?
I think not.
Yet, the dynastic majesty of Nadal’s total reign over the French Open should not be viewed as inevitable.
The real magic is in how Nadal can maintain his Parisian kingdom even after a clay season in which nothing came easy for him.
2019 will be special among Nadal’s Roland Garros trophy collection for that very reason.
It is the true, no?