PARIS, June 10, 2019 (by Sharada Rajagopalan)
Twelve finals, twelve titles, across two different decades. Such has been the tale of Rafael Nadal, winning the French Open a dozen times. He has cut across generations of rivals and has had two losses to show for all his laurels as if they were token battle scars. In a word, if consistency in tennisdom could be personified as a player, Nadal’s tryst with Roland Garros is the only description that is aptly fitting.
Yet, it is not that Nadal’s 15-plus successful years in Paris has been without changes. If he was a relative unknown stranger in 2005 on his way to becoming Roger Federer’s chief rival, his victory against Dominic Thiem in 2019 for his 18th Slam brought him closer to the Swiss’ 20 Slam titles. And, if these two triumphs could be considered bookends each fortnightly trip of Nadal’s at Roland Garros across the years in-between has added subtle annotations of a well-worn career, which is still in progress.
Over the years, the Mallorcan has made it look simpler. The tactic has also become almost verbatim: use his topspin-heavy forehand to dominate rallies and to push the ball shot-after-shot into the weaker section of his opponent’s game. Be instinctively brutal about winning, and repeat this, without faltering, match-after-match.
At large, though, the nuances escape scrutiny.
It is not always difficult to win a title – even a Major – with players finding it easy to deal with a complete lack of expectations. Trying and defending the same, as we know and have seen, is the exact opposite. Not only are there expectations to deal with the second time around but a player also needs to contend with self-confidence (or lack, thereof). There again, while it may happen that titles get defended twice over, trying to sustain such high level of intensity year-in and year-out is much difficult.
All of these without injuries to complicate players’ mental fortitude. If there an injury or physical problem forcing a player to offer less than his best, there is a depletion in the prospects of any such title defences. At the same time, scrutiny about the player’s potential to stick around long term on the circuit inversely increases. In such situations, a player – to borrow a cliché – is damned if he speaks up and damned if he does not.
Now, think of the player in the aforementioned context as Nadal, the 19-year-old kid who had sprung from nowhere to lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires and then, returned three more times to defend that title consecutively. Imagine being Nadal and re-entering the French Open draw in 2009, after the watershed year that 2008 was in which he had finally taken the no. 1 ranking that had belonged to Federer for the last four-and-some years. But also knowing about the precarious state of his knees and the strenuousness he had heaped on them while trying to attempt Bjorn Borg’s record of winning five straight French Open titles that year.
The newly-anointed 18-time Major champion’s fourth-round loss to Robin Soderling that year changed the face of men’s tennis. Federer conquered the elusive title and completed the career Slam. Nadal, on the other hand, was finally displaced as a human on clay susceptible to physical frailties as much as any other person.
That Nadal did equal the Swede’s record in the next five years that began with defeating Soderling the immediately following year (2010) can be seen as his second coming. One that was not borne out of his triumphs as many thought it would but off a loss. A similarity can be found in his last three victories in the city of fashion, following his 2015 defeat to Novak Djokovic.
On Sunday, after his win over Thiem, the Manacor native answered a question about his longevity. About how he had thrived when all around predictions rang about his physique preventing him from stitching a lengthy career. In a matter-of-fact manner, the World No. 2 replied, “I don’t know. The thing is people like to predict the future, and I don’t pretend that, never. So, when I hear that, I always said, ‘Maybe.’ I was not sad to hear that. I said, ‘Okay, maybe yes and maybe not.’ And that’s all.”
At the end of it all, as the reality of the 33-year-old’s 12th win sinks in further, this attitude is perhaps why Nadal has become so deeply intertwined with the French Open, entrenching himself as a tennis legend. It is not because he does not lose but because if at all there is an option of winning, he always pushes himself – mentally and physically – to go for it. No matter how high the stakes get each year.