TENNIS

Rafael Nadal’s French Open title propels him higher in the tennis pantheon

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When Rafael Nadal burst onto the tennis scene by winning the French Open in 2005, the consensus was that he was another in a long line of great clay court players, men who could dominate on the red surface. Roland Garros but were often vulnerable on faster surfaces.

Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander, true great clay (and hard court) players, have never won Wimbledon. On the other hand, Hall of Famers Pete Sampras, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg could never understand red clay.

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Bjorn Borg, who has won six times in Paris, has also won Wimbledon five times, but never the US Open or the Australian Open. Rod Laver has won on grass and clay and no doubt would have done so on hard courts if major tournaments had been played in his career. Laver could have won playing on an ice rink.

Sampras won 14 major titles but never reached the final in Paris. Prior to Sampras’ arrival, Roy Emerson held the record for men’s Grand Slam singles titles at age 12.

On Sunday, Nadal won one for the 14th time – in Paris. His record in the French Open final is 14-0 after a crushing 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 win over Casper Ruud. Ruud, 23, led 3-1 in the second set before Nadal took his game to another level, winning the last 11 games of the game. The Norwegian didn’t play the first two sets badly, but he didn’t have a chance. Nadal’s victory in Paris on the final Sunday of the tournament is as assured as summer rain in London. It’s inevitable.

Rafael Nadal beats Casper Ruud for 14th French Open title

This time, Nadal’s toughest match came in the quarter-finals, where he won a classic over four hours against compatriot Novak Djokovic. This match should have been the final, but no one in tennis has ever think. So Nadal, who has missed time with injuries this year, was the No. 5 seed because God forbid anyone not to follow the rankings.

Placing Nadal No. 5 in Paris is pretty much like telling Tiger Woods to go play in the minor league Korn Ferry Tour – after he won his first Masters by 12 strokes.

Nadal, in any case, has long since proven that he is much more than a clay-court specialist. His win on Sunday was his 22nd Grand Slam title, putting him two ahead of Djokovic and Roger Federer. If you held a final vote for the greatest player of all time today, Nadal, who turned 36 on Friday, should be No.

The stats are overstated, but a handful of Nadal’s numbers go beyond jaw-dropping. He is 112-3 at Roland Garros, but he has also won eight major clay-court tournaments: two Australian Opens, two Wimbledons and four US Opens. That’s as many major tournaments as icons Connors, Andre Agassi and Lendl have each won total – and one more than McEnroe.

What’s most fascinating about all of this is that last fall the title of greatest player of all time was more or less ceded to Djokovic. He beat Nadal to victory in Paris in June and went on to win at Wimbledon in July, putting him in a three-way tie with Nadal and Federer with 20 major wins.

Federer turned 40 in August and lost in the Wimbledon quarter-final to Hubert Hurkacz in straight sets, including 6-0 in the third. He then announced that he needed knee surgery again and hoped to play in 2022. He still hasn’t played, and as McEnroe noted during the NBC telecast Sunday, there are strong chances that we will never see him again in a major championship.

After his semi-final loss to Djokovic at Roland Garros in 2021, Nadal withdrew from Wimbledon and the US Open with a recurring foot problem. Many have wondered if his career might also be over.

Djokovic’s path to a 21st major win and major win record seemed clear. He was 34 years old, in good health and competing in a calendar Grand Slam in New York. His two big rivals were older and injured. But then Daniil Medvedev whipped him in the US Open final, and his refusal to get a shot amid the pandemic got him kicked out ahead of the Australian Open.

Nadal then came back from two sets in the Australian Open final against Medvedev and became the first man to win 21 majors. On Sunday, he turned 22 – and, apparently, 36 still counts. He is now halfway to a Grand Slam on the calendar, a feat that has not been accomplished on the men’s side since Laver did it in 1969 at a time when three of the four major tournaments were still played on grass. .

Djokovic, who has won six times at Wimbledon, will no doubt be close to taking him there. And although Nadal won one of the two greatest matches of all time (with McEnroe-Borg in 1980) in the 2008 final at the All England Club, grass is still the hardest surface for him because he cannot carry his opponents along the way. it does so in Paris – and to a lesser extent in New York and Melbourne – on shorter rallies and shorter matches.

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That’s a discussion for another day. Sunday was a day to revel in Nadal’s extraordinary career, his ability to come back again and again, whether through injury or at a time when his opponent seemed to be in control. That’s the greatness of Nadal: you can knock him down, but it’s almost impossible to knock him out.

At some point late in Sunday’s game, as Nadal went through his meticulous routine before the point – drying his hand and racquet on a towel, walking to the precise point where he wanted to receive, wiping his forehead, then, ultimately, standing in position to receive – NBC’s Dan Hicks commented on the consistency of this complex routine.

“Once the stitch starts, however,” said Mary Carillo, “what it does is very simple.”

In effect, it is: hitting the ball, then hitting it again and again and again until the point is won. We’ve seen him for 17 years, and even if his matches sometimes seem to go on forever, he never gets old.

Moreover, in a sport that has often lacked the grace of its champions, Nadal is never anything but graceful in victory and defeat. He ended his victory speech on Sunday by thanking the fans in French, which the crowd loved. He is as charming as he is brilliant.

One of the sweetest traditions at Roland Garros is to play the winner’s national anthem after they have received the trophy – in the case of the winner of the men’s singles, the Mousquetaires Cup, named after the four French stars of the Davis Cup of the 1920s. Nadal has now heard his anthem played 14 times on Sunday at Roland-Garros. The emotion on his face made it clear that he was still reveling in every victory.

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