PARIS, FRANCE—From 2005-2014, the redoubtable Rafael Nadal set a men's record by securing at least one major title a season for ten consecutive years. The last of those championships was the French Open three years ago. The Spaniard had already established himself unequivocally as one of the sport's towering all time champions, as a standup individual and a man of deep character, and as a fellow who went about his business with grace, humility and a heart as large as there is in the world of sports. Nadal never failed to wear his success remarkably well, refusing to gloat, always keeping himself and his achievements in perspective, consistently demonstrating genuine reverence for his rivals. Nadal reminded us over and over again that he was a champion of the highest order and a sportsman through and through. Having him collecting Grand Slam championships year after year was from my point of view uplifting for tennis. He knew how to win with dignity. He presented himself as a first rate human being. He could handle victory and defeat with equanimity.
The way I looked at it, the difficulties Nadal experienced between Roland Garros in 2014 and the French Open this time around were not good for tennis. It seemed for most of that period that Nadal might have moved permanently past his prime. After defeating Novak Djokovic in the final here three years ago, the Spaniard was beaten seven times in a row by the Serbian, who produced some of the most inspired tennis of his career during that stretch. But he had much more than Djokovic specifically to worry about. In 2014, a right wrist injury kept the Spaniard out of the U.S. Open. In 2015, still not physically right, he did not advance beyond the quarters at the four majors. And last year, Nadal struggled mightily with his left wrist, pulling out prior to his third round Roland Garros match, missing Wimbledon altogether, and looking like a shell of his former self in a five set loss to Lucas Pouille in the fourth round of last year's U.S. Open.
And yet, Nadal closed down his autumn campaign early in 2016, and very nearly opened the 2017 season with a second triumphant run at the Australian Open. He went all the way to the final, moved ahead of Roger Federer 3-1 in the fifth, but never won another game. Thereafter, he played well on the hard courts elsewhere, reaching the final of Acapulco but losing inexplicably to Sam Querrey. Meanwhile, he lost decisively to Federer again in the round of 16 at Indian Wells, and then suffered a third straight 2017 defeat against the Swiss in the final of Miami, again in straight sets.
Nonetheless, Nadal shifted to the clay court season and left those disappointments behind him. He blazed through Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid before losing to Dominic Thiem in the Rome quarterfinals, and then headed for Paris riding a substantial wave of confidence and realizing that no one was playing his brand of clay court tennis. Nadal dropped only 29 games en route to today's final round appointment against Stan Wawrinka, cutting down Thiem 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 in the penultimate round. Against Wawrinka, Nadal was clearly uptight at the outset of the encounter, and somewhat vulnerable across the first five games of the opening set.
In the end, however, Nadal was unstoppable. From 2-2 in the first set, he swept 16 of the last 20 games to cast aside the burly 32-year-old 6-2, 6-3, 6-1. Thus he concluded his most dominant fortnight ever on the French clay to pull off an unimaginable feat, taking his tenth French Open crown. Margaret Court did amass eleven of her native Australian Championships/Opens combined, but seven of those titles were captured prior to Open Tennis. Martina Navratilova won Wimbledon nine times between 1978 and 1990. And so Nadal stands in a league of his own as a ten-time victor at a major, and, making his triumph even sweeter, he has never lost a final at Roland Garros.
He has had some extraordinary runs in Paris before. In 2008, he secured the crown without dropping a set, demolishing Djokovic in the semifinals, crushing Federer 6-1 6-3, 6-0 in the final. He did not drop a set in 2010 either. But he succeeded this time even more efficiently and overwhelmingly, dropping only 35 games in his seven matches. To be sure, he has faced tougher opposition over the years at Roland Garros, most notably in 2013 when he held back Djokovic in an epic five set semifinal before dismissing David Ferrer in the final. He also had a two day, hard fought, pendulum swinging four set final with Djokovic in 2012.
But in my view this was the best sustained tennis he has ever played at the French Open from start to finish. The draw never really mattered this year. He came in healthy, eager, filled with self conviction, determined to reward himself and answer his critics by succeeding again when it demonstrably counts. The reason he prevailed so comfortably this year was because the state of his game—much to my amazement—has never been better. Never.
He was a magnificent player in 2008 when he claimed the French Open, Wimbledon and an Olympic gold medal in a short span. 2010 was his greatest season ever as he pocketed the last three majors of the season, including his first triumph at the U.S. Open. In 2013, he returned from a seven-month absence to heal his knees and won both Roland Garros and the U.S. Open, celebrating a third year as the season-ending No. 1 player on the planet. I can easily envision Nadal in the eye of my mind during those golden years, adding elements to his game, fighting furiously, bringing out the best in himself on so many occasions.
But I find myself astonished to point out that Nadal at 31 is in my mind a better tennis player than he has ever been before. He has rediscovered his forehand in many ways and is back to destroying adversaries with his whirlwind topspin along with the thundering inside out shot off that side. But the biggest improvements and refinements revolve around his backhand and his serve. For example, all match long against Wawrinka his depth on his second delivery was unassailable. Those second serves seemed always to be landing a few inches from the service line. His first serve has more locational variety, and now his opponents are often guessing and frequently caught off guard by Nadal's deception. The serve will never be a substantial weapon for him the way it is for Federer, but he can control service games and garner more free points with it, and he moves it around more skillfully than he ever has.
Now, let's examine the Nadal backhand. To my eye, the two-hander is a decidedly improved shot for the Spaniard. The way he drives through it and flattens it out at times when going crosscourt is astonishing. His depth off that side is greater than ever when it matters in a match. Surely he is not quite as fast as he was seven to ten years ago, but he remains a terrific mover and he can shorten points more persuasively than was the case in the past. My primary point is this: Rafael Nadal is a more versatile tennis player now than at any other stage of his career. It will be fun to watch him on grass and hard courts to see if he can maintain the high standards he has set on the clay in 2017.
Yet it is time to examine the final. Bear in mind first that Nadal had a score to settle with Wawrinka, not a personal one but a professional retaliation. In the 2014 Australian Open final, these two individuals clashed, and Nadal was the prohibitive favorite. At that time, he had a 12-0 career head to head record against Wawrinka, who had never even taken a set off the Spaniard. Nadal seemed to be peaking propitiously, having eclipsed Federer in a dazzling straight set semifinal. But he hurt his back in the warmup, never looked comfortable, left the court in the second set for treatment, and eventually lost in four sets. Wawrinka broke through to win his first major, but his task was made much easier by Nadal's obvious discomfort.
By the time they met here today, Nadal led Wawrinka 15-3 in their career series. But he had lost to the Swiss only once on clay, and that was two years ago when he squandered a 6-2 lead in the first set tie-break of a quarterfinal in Rome and fell in straight sets. Nadal in that period paled in comparison where he is at the moment. That is the background. Most importantly, Nadal could not easily forget what happened against Wawrinka in Melbourne back in 2014. And he surely believed that he would make amends on this court now, no matter how much progress Wawrinka has made on the dirt.
The 2015 French Open champion is indeed a top notch competitor on the dirt these days, but Nadal knew that in this form he was not going to lose to Wawrinka unless he had an abysmal day. Wawrinka had toiled for more than four and a half hours to topple Andy Murray in a five set semifinal, reversing the result of the semifinal the two players had contested a year ago on the same court. Wawrinka's shotmaking was breathtaking in that contest and Murray in the end could not contain him.
But Nadal is not Andy Murray. His clay court game is vastly superior, and he refused to allow the big hitter from Switzerland to settle into patterns from the backcourt that would be advantageous for hitting blazing winners. In a tactical and technical sense, Nadal had Murray beat by a mile in terms of how to play Wawrinka on this surface.
At the outset, though, Nadal was very tight. He was uncharacteristically spraying forehands long and smothering a few into the net, and his was not connecting with his first serve. Although Nadal held at love in the first game of the match, he missed three out of four first serves. Wawrinka held at 15 for 1-1 and then had his only break point of the match in the third game. Nadal saved it with a fine wide serve to the backhand that Wawrinka could not get back into play. An ace out wide in the deuce court gave Nadal a game point and a first serve directed at the Wawrinka forehand enabled Nadal to hold on for 2-1 as the Swiss's return was errant. The fourth game was proof that Nadal remained apprehensive. It went to deuce six times. The Spaniard had four break points. But his forehand let him down repeatedly in that game. It was as if he wanted the early break too badly.
No matter. Nadal held at 30 with an ace for 3-2 and broke at 15 for 4-2. he began to find his range in that game, which spelled trouble for Wawrinka. Nadal held at 15 for 5-2 with growing conviction, serving an ace out wide for 30-15, closing that game with a deep forehand down the line approach setting up a backhand volley winner into the open court. Nadal was now feeling the ball much better and Wawrinka was at a loss to do anything about it. With Wawrinka serving to stay in the set as the eighth game commenced, the score was locked at 30-30 when the Spaniard went to work assiduously off the forehand, pounding away rhythmically until he found the opening for a crosscourt winner. On the following point, an almost fatalistic Wawrinka erred off the forehand. Despite a shaky start, Nadal had galloped through the first set 6-2.
He did not slow down in the least. Meanwhile, umpire Pascal Maria may have done the Spaniard a favor with a time warning at 30-30 in the first game of the second set. Nadal promptly produced a superb first serve to the forehand for 40-30 and held with a beautifully angled and penetrating backhand crosscourt that lured Wawrinka into a forehand down the line error. Nadal followed with a flourish, breaking at love in the second game. He was smothering Wawrinka now, and the Swiss had no game plan to effectively combat Nadal's surging mastery. Nadal held at 15 for 3-0 with an inside out forehand winner lifted straight out of his classic playbook.
Wawrinka ended a seven game losing streak by holding with command for 1-3, but he was making no impression at all on Nadal's delivery.Yet he did have a small opening when he reached 15-30 on the Spaniard's serve in the fifth game. Nadal, however, closed it quickly. A deep crosscourt backhand from the No. 4 seed forced an error from Wawrinka. Nadal's heavy topspin shot on the next point broke down Wawrinka again, and at 40-30 Nadal came through with a backhand down the line bordering on the baseline. Wawrinka sent a backhand long. It was 4-1 for Nadal. After Wawrinka held in the next game, Nadal moved to 5-2 on a love hold with an ace. Two games later, serving for the set at 5-3, Nadal was ahead 30-15. He punched a forehand volley down the middle and a sprinting Wawrinka thought he had a good look at a forehand inside out passing shot. But he missed it by a wide margin. Disgusted by that error, Wawrinka smashed his racket on the court. Nadal took no notice. He was implacable. An un-returnable first serve gave Nadal the set 6-3.
There would be no stopping him now. With Wawrinka serving at 15-40 in the first game of the third set, Nadal released a return with astounding depth, backing up Wawrinka. The 31-year-old then moved in for the kill, lacing an inside out forehand for a winner. Delighted to have the immediate break, Nadal held at love for 2-0 with a running forehand down the line winner. Wawrinka held in the third game and had Nadal down 0-30 in the fourth. Wawrinka's return was reasonably deep and he had Nadal backing up, but that did not stop the Spaniard from making a scintillating inside out forehand winner. Nadal eventually held on from deuce to reach 3-1.
Now he made a concerted effort to achieve another break, realizing that could put the match out of reach for Wawrinka. Four times, Wawrinka advanced to game point but Nadal simply would not let go. He probed and probed and probed until he got what he wanted, and that was a 4-1 lead. It was over. Nadal held at love for 5-1 and broke at 30 to wrap up a 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 triumph. It was not his most decisive victory in a Roland Garros final; that was a 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 win over Federer in 2008. But once Nadal cast aside his early match nerves and found a groove from the backcourt, he was stupendous. He reminded us for the umpteenth time why he is incontestably the greatest in the history of the game on clay.
The numbers tell a significant part of the story. Wawrinka won only 52% of his first serve points while Nadal was at 83%. Wawrinka took 44% of his second serve points but Nadal won 65% of his. Wawrinka made 29 unforced errors while Nadal committed only 12. And Nadal even surpassed Wawrinka in winners, 27 to 19. Need I say more?
Wawrinka said in his press conference, " For sure he's [Nadal] is playing the best he's ever played. That's for sure. But not only here. I think from the beginning of the year you can see he's playing more aggressive, staying more close to the lines. That's clearly the best he's ever played. That's why he's winning so much again."
Not only did Nadal take his tenth title in Paris, but he also passed Pete Sampras on the all time men's list for major singles titles by securing a 15th Grand Slam singles championship. He has moved into second place and stands three behind the all time leader Federer. Can Nadal recover his old greatness on the grass at Wimbledon, where he won two titles and reached three other finals between 2006 and 2011? That, he says, will depend on his knees.
"After 2012, " he explains, "what happened with my knees it has been tougher and tougher to compete on grass for me. That's the reality, no? I love grass, everybody knows, and it's a surface I really enjoyed a lot playing there. So I hope my knees hold up well and I can have the preparation that I need. If that happens, why not? If I have pain in the knees then I know from experience it's almost impossible. If I am healthy and I am able to have the right preparation for Wimbledon, then probably I'm going to have my chances to play well there."
Meanwhile, he can celebrate a job well done at Roland Garros. The frightening prospect for the rest of the players is that Nadal will probably win the French Open at least once and maybe a couple more times before he eventually retires. His early thirties are shaping up to be more productive than we ever could have envisioned.