In recent years as he has edged ever closer towards the twilight of his career, Rafael Nadal has continually discussed his advancing age with total disdain. While many see its silver linings in its maturity, he sees none.
It has gradually taken away one of the greatest assets, his athleticism. It has made his body from him, which has already seen far too many injuries, even more prone to them. Regardless, for 20 years he has approached his career with the same positive attitude, the same calmness, the same acceptance and fight, and in the process he has continued to perform wonders so long into it.
After a fortnight in which he has only been able to summon his best tennis when he desperately needed it, Nadal picked apart Casper Ruud even in the absence of his top level for much of the match, winning 6-3, 6-3, 6 -0 to clinch a remarkable, record-extending 14th French Open title.
Nadal has also extended his men’s all-time grand slam record to 22, creating a notable gap between himself and his two greatest rivals, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, who both have 20 major titles.
Two days after his 36th birthday, and 17 years after first winning here as a precocious 19 year-old, Nadal has now won for long enough to also stand as the oldest French Open men’s champion in history, surpassing the 50-year record set by his countryman, Andres Gimeno, who was 34 years old. He is now halfway to the grand slam for the first time in his career after also winning the Australian Open in January.
The build-up to the tournament had been dominated by speculation about Nadal’s future after his chronic foot injury relapsed at the Italian Open. He was utterly miserable that night in Rome and has spent the past two weeks speaking doubtfully about the long term prospects for his foot without a permanent medical solution. But his mentality, his ability to block everything else out but the present moment, has always won out.
The outcome of his efforts have only reinforced what has been clear for well over a decade: as long as Nadal is fit enough to play freely, Nadal at Roland Garros is the closest thing in tennis to untouchable. In a sport filled with such a deep field of other disciplined and professional rivals, the level of dominance he has unlocked, the gap between himself and the rest even after so long, remains astonishing.
Not only did Ruud have to deal with the nerves of a first grand slam final, but he was facing his all-time idol, Nadal, for the first time in his career. Every aspect of the build-up seemed set to reinforce those nerves. Before the pair had even agreed at the net, the crowd had broken into cheers of “Rafa, Rafa” and shortly after came the most daunting sound in sport: the announcer naming each of the 13 years that Nadal won in Paris, one by one .
In the end, though, Ruud’s biggest issue was simply the vast gap in quality between the two players, and his inability to consistently hurt Nadal with any part of his game. With the roof open and the weather far more pleasant than anticipated, Nadal burst into the match moving inside the baseline and dictating on his terms as he established a 2-0 lead.
After Nadal gave away that break with two double faults and a forehand error, Ruud betrayed his own nerves by striking three consecutive loose errors to hand it back. Under minimal pressure, Nadal eased through the set as the predictable pattern was established, Nadal laying waste to the Ruud backhand in the ad-court exchanges with his heavy topspin forehand. Ruud became locked deeper and deeper in his backhand corner, and most of the time he was unable to escape.
Nadal missed break points in the opening game of the second set, and then double faulted on break point himself to trail 3-1. Unforced errors from both wings made a routine match even more complicated. But Nadal immediately broke back, won five games in a row to take the second set and then he breezed through the final set to take the match.
Throughout this week, Nadal has said that he would give an explanation of his current physical circumstances once his tournament concluded and this long-term doubt has led to widespread speculation about when he will play again.
There will certainly be time for that subject, but for now, for his fans, it is worth savoring a sight that won’t be seen for so much longer: the most successful grand slam player of all time navigating a route to success again.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism