As Rafael Nadal reckoned with standing a match from a French Open title for the 14th time, he was asked what initially seemed like an amusing question. The query was simple: whether he would sign up for a magical new foot if it meant losing the final.
“I would prefer to lose the final without a doubt,” Nadal said superbly after his semi-final against Alexander Zverev. “My thoughts haven’t changed; in the end a new foot would allow me to be more happy in my day-to-day life. Winning is lovely and it fills you with adrenaline for a short moment but life goes on. Life is much more important than whatever title.” Nadal then explained that he would like to enjoy different activities after his career, which is currently in doubt. His happiness from him, he says, comes first.
Nadal has made his way to the end in far from ideal circumstances. It was already an unexpected challenge after he fractured his rib in Indian Wells, his final tournament before the clay season, forcing him to play catch up. Since the Italian Open his chronic foot ailment has been the focal point of his consternation of him. Those various obstacles have been reflected in his form.
Yet in every important moment during the past fortnight, Nadal has elevated his level without fail. In his fourth-round match against Felix Auger Aliassime he did not look like himself as they went to a tense fifth set. But when he truly needed to perform deep in that deciding set, he raised his game to win.
In his quarter-final against Novak Djokovic, the stakes were so high that every second of the match was important. No matter: he entered the contest on fire, starting Djokovic and then eventually saving set points on his opponent’s serve in the fourth set. “In a way, it makes it simpler when you know that you either need your A game or you’re going home,” he said. Against Zverev, the only time Nadal exhibited his A-game was when he trailed 2-6 in the first-set tiebreak.
This is nothing new. Nadal’s fighting spirit, his composure of him under pressure and his ability to elevate his level in tight situations have been the bedrock of his game but it is astonishing he is able to achieve this time and time again. As athletes grow older, these things often change. Many veterans come to understand how important these moments are, how limited the time they have left is, and playing with freedom can be so difficult.
Not for Nadal. Here he is chasing a record-extending 22nd grand slam title, another significant moment in tennis history. Never in his career he has won the first two grand slam titles of the year, a feat he is a match away from achieving in his 20th season, two days on from his 36th birthday.
This could not be a more difficult task for Casper Ruud, the first Norwegian man to reach a grand slam final. Nadal is Ruud’s idol, which has led to Ruud spending his last few years based at the Rafa Nadal Academy in Manacor. While they have trained together many times there, Ruud has never faced Nadal in a match. He will not only have to emotionally adapt to playing in a grand slam final for the first time but to also staring down the legend across the net.
An even bigger obstacle for Ruud, though, is that he plays a lesser style inspired by Nadal, centered around another one of the bigger heavy topspin forehands in the game and steadfast consistency. Ruud had a pleasant draw in the bottom half, his highest ranked opponent being the No 14, Hubert Hurkacz, and this will be the most difficult challenge of his career.
In recent years, as men’s tennis has looked for players to follow Nadal and his rivals, many of Ruud’s peers have received so much more hype than him. Despite that, he now has the same number of grand slam finals as Stefanos Tsitsipas and Zverev and he has reached a final before all the others.
His fortnight in Paris stands as an argument in favor of working smartly, with your head down and your mind focused on improving – exactly what Nadal has demonstrated to Ruud and everyone else for two decades and counting.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism