An all too familiar sight at the end of an exhilarating 2 weeks at Roland Garros is often Rafael Nadal holding the Coupe des Mosquetaires; however this year, it is not with complacency that we marvel at this sight, but rather an undying admiration for what Nadal has managed to achieve: a 10th French Open title… La Decima.
If you had asked me this time last year whether Nadal would achieve this feat, I would have said “not a chance.” With Nadal having to pull out of the tournament last year before his 3rd round clash with compatriot Marcel Granollers, despite playing some of his greatest tennis (if you don’t believe me, I urge you to watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3H3EPNw9aAE), all hopes for a coveted 10th crown seemed doomed. At the conclusion of the 2016 tournament, we finally saw Novak Djokovic conquer Paris, and become the first man since Rod Laver to win 4 majors in a row… Nadal had to watch from the not-so comfort of his home in Mallorca.
While it is true that Rafael Nadal is one of the greatest warriors to ever grace a tennis court, and that his mental fortitude alone is sure to put him on the Mount Rushmore of tennis legends when he finally decides to hang up his racquet, no one could have predicted the manner in which he would complete the fabled ‘La Decima’ 365 days ago.
Following the conclusion of the Rio Olympics (in which he remarkably claimed his first doubles gold medal, and narrowly missed out on bronze in singles to Kei Nishikori), Rafa decided to skip the rest of the season, and work on properly rehabilitating his throbbing wrist, which had caused him so many problems throughout the year. I think I can speak for tennis fans everywhere when I express my gratitude for him doing so; when he returned at the start of the 2017 season, we saw a renewed vigour in his forehand, a willingness to stand on the baseline and finally, establish his old sadistic rhythm of relentlessly moving opponents around the court until their will was broken.
You could be forgiven for looking at the numbers and being relatively unimpressed with Nadal’s 2017 campaign preceding the clay-court stretch: 0 titles? Is that something that Rafa would consider a success? Of course not. The reality is he ran into the best version of Roger Federer I have ever seen, not just once, but for all 3 of the significant hard-court tournaments (Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami). The truth is that Rafa would have beaten anyone else in the world not named Roger Federer on these days, that’s tennis I guess.
When it was announced that Federer would be skipping the entire clay-court season in order to prepare his ageing body for the rigorous demands of the grass and hard-court swing, all eyes suddenly thrust upon Nadal. Rafa has always been the undisputed king of clay, however now his greatest foe was sidelined, would we see yet another clay sweep from the Matador? Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, the latter now world number 1, were both experiencing alarming slumps in form, and no one seemed ready, or even willing, to snatch the crown of the red dirt away from it’s king.
Seizing his opportunity, Rafa essentially dominated the clay-court swing, collecting titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Madrid. The only blemish on his record was a straight sets loss to rising Austrian superstar Dominic Thiem (a certain future world number 1) on the clay in Rome, the consequence of a gruelling few weeks in which Rafa hadn’t lost a single match. Rafa packed his bags and went back to his home-town of Mallorca to sneak in some last-minute practice at his tennis academy, plotting his path to sporting immortality in a couple of weeks time.
Now, I’m not saying, or inferring anything alluding to the fact that Nadal wasn’t the heavy favourite for the Roland Garros title; given his recent performances, anything to the contrary would be absurd. However, when we look at the manner in which he bulldozed his way to glory, it is truly startling: Nadal dropped just 35 games on his way to the title (albeit this stat is aided by the retirement of Pablo Carreno Busta in the 2nd set of their quarter-final), and what’s more frightening is that the most games any of his opponents could muster against him in a single set was 4. Nadal’s dominance was epitomised, not by his 6-0 6-1 6-0 thrashing over Nikoloz Basilashvili in the 2nd round, but by his destruction of Stanislas Wawrinka in the final. For a brief moment, I thought Eurosport were showing a replay of his dominant victory over Roger Federer in the 2008 final (in which he only dropped 4 games). Wawrinka had never lost a Grand Slam final, and had soundly beaten Nadal to win his first major at the Australian Open 3 years ago, but not even the brutish power of Stan the Man could topple Rafa’s quest for history. “He puts this doubt in your head when you play against him. For sure he’s playing the best he’s ever played, playing more aggressive, staying close to the [base]line”, remarked Wawrinka after bearing witness to one of the all-time great finals performances.
Throughout the tournament, the question evolved from “how do I beat Rafa on clay?” to “how do I even win a point?” The fact that professional tennis players have to ask themselves this should illustrate what a daunting task it is to face this colossus of a competitor; a man who refuses to give up anything for free, that fights for every point as if it were his last, Rafael Nadal.
As Uncle Toni, Rafa’s coach and mentor, stood on the podium to gaze spectacularly upon the Coupes des Mosquetaires with his nephew (sadly for the last as Toni will now retire from coaching Rafa in order to oversee day-to-day business at his nephew’s tennis academy in Mallorca), it starts to sink in that Nadal has made this tournament his own ever since he stepped onto its hollowed grounds to play for the first time at the age of only 17. Rafa can now boast to hold the elusive title of La Decima at the French Open, but on this evidence can we even put a number on how many he will hold by the end of his illustrious career?