While watching Rafael Nadal try to complete the third set of the Roland Garros men’s final while fending off a cramp in his left hand, it struck me: Every little detail must work in a player’s favor to reach the holy grail in tennis, otherwise known as winning a major championship. There cannot be any accidents. No drunk drivers, like what derailed Thomas Muster, or a deranged fan who interrupted the course of Monica Seles’s life. There cannot be any injuries — like Juan Martin Del Potro’s vulnerable wrists — or the distractions that may come from personal problems. One cannot even suffer a lapse in focus or concentration because that opens the door to hungry rivals who are always working to improve.
Rafael Nadal has somehow, once again, hunkered down in the eye of storm — the sweet spot — for the eleventh time in Paris. Attributing the words “eleventh major title” to anyone in the Open Era of tennis is quite frankly absurd. Nadal, without any of his six other titles from the rest of the Grand Slam tournaments, would still be ranked among the very best on the all-time list of major champions in men’s tennis. Nadal has arguably been one of the greatest tennis players in history for almost a decade before his achievement on Sunday, but his total dominance over this surface feels like it is just at the beginning instead of an end that only Nadal can visualize.
Since turning 30 years old, Nadal has amassed a 50-2 record across the European clay swing and won 114 sets to his competition’s 9. His career record at Roland Garros is now 86 wins and 2 losses. He has won all of Roland Garros, Madrid, Rome, Barcelona, and Monte Carlo. He defended his title as the oldest Roland Garros champion and has dropped only one set in Paris. So is the field just getting weaker or has Nadal somehow leveled up?
Nadal, since his youth, has been heralded for his ability to play point by point. He accepts, digests, and prepares, knowing that after each full-intensity point, he has to replicate that process all over again. Although I — as an outside observer — think his greatest quality to study is his constant desire to improve every day, with Nadal it doesn’t seem to be a source of a search for perfection. It’s more like he’s one of those quirky doomsday preparers who can be seen on television. Those people are constantly acquiring resources for some apocalypse that may never come, just as Nadal works away the thought of an impending loss.
Remarkably, at 32 years old, he is still improving as well. Nadal over the years has retooled his court positioning, his service motion, then the direction and placement of his serve, and finally his backhand. Carlos Moya, Nadal’s coach, stated that consistent aggression was the goal for this clay swing. Nadal’s backhand was determined to prove his point. Nadal had struck 40 backhand winners coming into the final compared to 31 last year, but the quality of his backhand has seemed to be more purposeful. It counters the weaknesses that players such as Novak Djokovic were beginning to find in his game.
So yes, Nadal has leveled up… while his biggest rival on clay has recently turned into someone who can say that “I still remember when you won here the first time in 2005, I was 11 years old watching on TV and I never expected to play the finals here.”
After Thiem’s praise, Nadal wept with the Coupe des Mousquetaires in hand for the eleventh time. The luck it takes to build a champion — not in relationship to any point from this match, but in terms of avoiding a much more severe problem with the cramp in his hand — felt immense.
Rafael Nadal could have been any of us and one day he will be a civilian like one of us. Tennis fans are lucky enough to witness and partake in another demonstration of greatness which all of time will remember.
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