ROLAND GARROS – Purely on a tennis and physical level, it was perhaps the easiest French Open Rafael Nadal has won.
Emotionally, it was on another level entirely.
The 31-year-old from Mallorca pulled off “La Décima” Sunday. And in doing so, he dominated the one opponent most gave at least a puncher’s chance to stop him in 2015 champion Stan Wawrinka.
Wawrinka has the game to beat Nadal. And he was unbeaten in his three previous Grand Slam finals. Nadal’s solution to that was thorough: make sure the man had absolutely zero chance to impose that game.
Who knew? After a 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 victory, it turns out “Décima” was short for “decimation”.
“This tournament I have been playing great during the whole event since the beginning. So have been, I think, a perfect Roland Garros for me,” Nadal said. “So it’s not that I am playing more or less aggressive. I am playing well. And when you play well, you have the chance to play more aggressive, no?”
Conditions a perfect “10”
The conditions on Sunday were tailor-made for 10: blazing hot temperatures made for a quick court, just the way Nadal likes it.
It seemed Wawrinka wasn’t running on all cylinders physically after a four hour, 34-minute semi-final victory over world No. 1 Andy Murray two days ago. But he shot down that notion.
Wawrinka said he had completely recovered from the Murray match. It was a case of the mental affecting the physical.
“Everything’s connected. If the mind hesitates about what you want to do, the legs are late and then, it becomes difficult. You’re always sort of in-between,” Wawrinka said. “When you play Rafa, if you hesitate even half a second, or even less than that, it’s already too late.”
This version of Rafael Nadal might well be the finest version yet. The way he played Sunday – throughout the fortnight, really – it was hard to imagine anyone on the other side of the net having a ghost of a chance.
“For sure he’s playing the best he’s ever played. But not only here. I think since the beginning of the year. You can see he’s playing more aggressive, staying more close (to) the line,” Wawrinka said. “That’s why he’s winning so much again.”
No solutions for Swiss
Wawrinka tried to wake his racquet up by banging his head with it a few times. He made a racquet sculpture that wouldn’t have looked out of place next to the Louvre Pyramid.
“I was trying to find a solution. Trying to play better. I was trying to play the game I wanted to play. I was trying to do something different. But again, today, as I say, there is not much to talk about the match,” he said. “I played against the biggest clay-court player ever. He won his 10th French Open today, so that’s something huge, also.”
Nadal won nine French Opens and 14 Grand Slam titles overall with a backhand that served more as a placeholder for his big, spinning, powerful forehand than a dangerous weapon on its own. And he won them, with the exception of the 2010 US Open, with a serve used more to start the point than create havoc in and of itself.
New, improved, post-drought Rafa
In this 10th championship run, Nadal’s weaponry was virtually complete. He dropped just 35 games in seven matches. It was clear to all who witnessed it that the best clay-court player in the history of the game actually has gotten better, after a three-year Grand Slam title drought.
The Spaniard spent more than half an hour Saturday just ripping first serves in his final full practice. More often than has been his preference, he broke 200 km/hour. The serving upgrade was long overdue. But as in everything he does, Nadal runs on his own timetable.
The Slam drought was partly health-related, to be sure. But it was also clear through Novak Djokovic’s domination of their rivalry (he held an 11-1 record against Nadal between the 2013 US Open and this year’s Madrid event) that the Spaniard needed to retool for this latter stage of his career.
If the game between the supreme roster in men’s tennis right now is catch up and adjust, the field had caught up – particularly the two-handers with great returns of serve. So Nadal adjusted. He didn’t do it by adding new weapons. He did it by taking the shots he already possessed up a notch.
Wawrinka felt the ire of that French Open dry spell Sunday. As one of the French commentators noted, it was a “monumental and inexorable butt-kicking.” (It sounds even more dramatic in French).
“I try my best in all the events. That’s the real thing. But the feelings I have here are impossible to describe, compared to other places. For me, the nerves, the adrenaline I feel when I play in this court is impossible to compare to another feeling,” an emotional Nadal said after the victory, which took just two hours and four minutes.
Perfect Roland Garros touches
The tournament was well-prepared for this milestone win. That’s always a risk; there’s an opponent there who wants nothing more than for the commemorative banners to stay in storage another year.
The raised stand brought out onto the court for the trophy ceremony boasted a Roland Garros logo with the number 10. There were massive banners that covered the fans in the upper levels of the stadium congratulation Nadal on his achievement.
And in a surprise, the tournament commissioned a full-sized replica of the Trophée des Mousquetaires, one that listed all of Nadal’s victories and the years he won.
His uncle and coach Toni Nadal, for whom this is to be the final French Open with his nephew, brought it out to him.
Nadal nearly dropped it – a rare trophy faux pas for a man who has raised the hardware on this special court so many times.
And after Nadal insisted his uncle stay up on the stand for he photos, they stood side by side. Each was holding a full-sized trophy – twin symbols of a incredibly fruitful, symbiotic partnership that was celebrated on this day as never before.
Doubts erased – for now
“During that three years, I had doubts. Right now, I gonna have doubts even in a few days, because in tennis every week is a new story and that’s part of the beautiful thing of our sport. Life is not that clear,” Nadal said. “The doubts, I think, are good, because the doubts give you the possibility to work with more intensity, with being more humble, and accepting that you need to keep working hard to improve things.”
This was the third French Open Nadal has won without dropping a set. The other two came in 2008 and 2010. As it happens, he won Wimbledon both those years.
There may be more to come.