Nadal: The King of Clay Will Always Have Paris

Rafael Nadal (photo: Jürgen Hasenkopf)

PARIS/WASHINGTON, June 6, 2022 (by Michael Dickens)

“Victory belongs to the most tenacious” are words inscribed in both English and French in the upper-deck façade on either side of Court Philippe-Chatrier. They are attributed to French aviation and World War I hero Roland Garros, whose name is synonymous with the French Open. They serve as a reminder to those who play on the famed terre battue at Stade Roland Garros in Paris, the City of Lights.

On Sunday, Rafael Nadal, looking and playing unbeatable, won his 14th French Open title. He extended his men’s record of 22 major singles titles with a 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 victory over Casper Ruud, 10 years his junior. Nadal won the last 11 games of the two hour, 18-minute title match before a sellout crowd of 15,000.

At the end of the day, the King of Clay reigned, again, 17 years to the day he hoisted his first Coupe de Mousquetaires trophy as a long-haired, 19-year-old teenager in toreador pants, after defeating Mariano Puerta. His latest triumph was filled with emotion and it was important to him, too.

Nadal was asked by NBC‘s Maria Taylor during a post-trophy ceremony interview to describe what it felt like to hold the trophy this time. He replied: “It’s amazing, much more emotional than the first time. It’s completely unexpected for me to be where I am at this age, at this stage of my career. It means everything.

“I have been going through tough times the last couple of months. To have the trophy with me here is something unbelievable.”

Like the previous 13 times, the French Open served as Nadal’s wake-up call to the rest of the tennis world. Through the latest Parisian fortnight, Nadal became the third man in the Open Era to beat four Top-10 opponents in a single major. Three days after he celebrated his 36th birthday, Nadal became the oldest man to win Roland Garros, surpassing another Spaniard, Andrés Gimeno, who set the record at age 34 half a century ago.

Nadal extended his perfect record to 14-0 in Roland Garros finals, and also extended his record of most career major titles to 22, which now puts him two ahead of his closest rivals, Novak Djokovic, whom he beat in the quarterfinals, and Roger Federer, who is still recovering from knee surgery. Nadal solidified his place in the tennis Hall of Fame and his records will certainly be unbeatable for the foreseeable future, if at all.

During the trophy ceremony that followed Nadal’s latest French triumph, he expressed his appreciation and also thanked his legions of faithful fans, many whom were holding up banners and waving Spanish flags throughout the stadium.

“I for sure never believed I would be here at 36 being competitive again, playing in the most important court of my career one more time in the final,” Nadal said. “It means a lot to me, means everything. It just means a lot of energy to try to keep going.”

Indeed, Nadal kept going and his latest French Open title was an historic run for him and for tennis. He began with a trio of straight-set wins over Jordan Thompson of Australia, wild card Corentin Moutet of France, and No. 26 seed Botic van de Zandschulp of the Netherlands.

Then, Nadal came from behind to beat No. 9 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada in five sets, and followed it with a four-hour-plus, four-set victory over the World No. 1 and top seed Djokovic in the 59th renewal of their storied rivalry. On Friday, his semifinal against No. 3 seed Alexander Zverev was cut short when the German severely rolled his ankle and suffered ligament damage to his right foot that forced him to retire. Finally, the Spaniard mastered No. 8 seed Ruud, who was making his first Grand Slam final appearance. He won the last 11 games in a row and surrendered just eight total points to Ruud in the final set.

From first ball to last ball, Nadal showed great control and tolerated frustration. By the end, he showed how special a man he is. It’s not often that you get to perform in front of tennis royalty – among those who attended the final were Billie Jean King, Stan Smith, Stefan Edberg and Gustavo Kuerten – and monarchs, too. King Felipe VI and the crown prince of Norway had front-row seats for Nadal’s coronation.

The 23-year-old Ruud, who made history by being the first male player from Norway to appear in a major final, has been a student at Nadal’s tennis academy in Mallorca, Spain, and Nadal has nurtured him. Ruud said in press after his semifinal victory over No. 20 seed Marin Cilic that Nadal was his childhood idol. He could even recite whom the champion beat in each of his 13 previous French Open title matches.

Looking back, Ruud can be forgiven for struggling at times and not playing his best in the final. It’s not a surprise that trying to beat Nadal can turn dreams into nightmares. However, by the end of the match, all was good between the two competitors – both were smiling – and Nadal had plenty of kind things to say about Ruud during the trophy ceremony after Ruud was highly complementary of Nadal.

“The most important thing is to congratulate Rafa,” Ruud said after receiving his runner-up trophy. “It is your 14th time here and 22nd [title] at Grand Slams. We all know what a champion you are and today I got to feel how it is to play against you in the final and it is not easy. I am not the first victim; I know there have been many before.

“To you Rafa, your team, your family. You have taken me into your academy with open arms. So, thank you a lot. You are a true inspiration to me and everyone who follows tennis around the world. We all hope you will continue for some more time.”

Soon, when it was Nadal’s turn to give his valedictory speech, he said: “I don’t know what can happen in the future but I’m going to keep fighting to try to keep going.” The applause that followed was deafening but sincere. Plenty of cheers of “Rafa! Rafa! Rafa!” were audible throughout Court Philippe-Chatrier.

After, when Nadal addressed the media in his final Roland Garros press conference, he said that for him, having the Coupe de Mousquetaires next to him, again, meant everything.

“It has been an emotional victory, without a doubt,” he said. “Unexpected in some ways. I am very happy. It has been a great two weeks. I played from the beginning, improving every day. Finishing by playing a good final. I am super happy and can’t thank everybody enough for the support since the first day that I arrived here. It is very emotional.”

Additionally, Nadal said that it was not his intention to continue to play in tournaments with pain-killing injections that numbed his chronically-injured left foot, like he did in Paris to combat his condition known as Müller-Weiss syndrome.

“Everybody knows how much this tournament means to me,” Nadal expressed. “That was the only way to give myself a chance here, no? So, I did it. And I can’t be happier and I can’t thank enough my doctor for all the things he did during all my tennis career, helping me in every tough moment. But it’s obvious that I can’t keep competing with the foot asleep.”

Nadal ruled out taking further painkilling injections in order to play Wimbledon, which begins in three weeks. Instead, he will seek an alternate means to be able to play pain free. For now, Nadal declined to rule out playing Wimbledon. Still, he has the desire to compete, to fight. It’s in his personality.

“It’s not about being the best [in] history. It’s not about the records,” Nadal stressed. “It’s about what I do. I like to play tennis. And I like the competition. As I said a couple of times in the past, and is not a thing that I repeat, is not the thing that I don’t feel for me, we achieved our dreams. Me, Roger, Novak, we achieved things that probably we never expected.

“For me, what drives me to keep going is not about the competition to try to be the best or to win more Grand Slams than the others. What drives me to keep going is the passion for the game, live moments that stay inside me forever, and play in front of the best crowds in the world and the best stadiums.”

For now, we can appreciate the remarkable and incredible 2022 season Nadal has enjoyed – a 30-3 win-loss record and four ATP Tour titles won – and hope there are more historic days ahead. After all, there were fewer finer hours than Sunday in Paris, a place that has always been unique for Nadal. This time, he ended his latest title victory by solidly hitting his 37th winner of the match, a beautiful down-the-line backhand that landed in the sunshine end of the court. It lifted his all-time mark at Roland Garros to an astonishing 112-3. The outcome allowed Nadal, once again, to wear his emotions on his sleeve for all of the world to witness.

Indeed, the King of Clay will always have Paris.

“Quotable …”

“I think the best thing I can learn from him is how he’s cool about what’s going on around him. Because sometimes in our heads, I think many players are overanalysing everything. We treat those finals … [that] if we are gonna lose suddenly, our life is bad.

“I feel like all these great champions, they kind of accept that they may lose. I remember even last year when Rafa lost in semifinals, I met him coincidentally next day, at breakfast in the hotel, and I said to him that I was crying basically the whole evening because he lost.

“He was, like, ‘Oh, it’s just a tennis match. You win, you lose. It’s normal’. Not everybody can do that and just treat those big moments as another match.”

Iga Swiatek, who won her second Roland Garros singles title and second major crown Saturday.