Paris: Rafael Nadal, a French Open champion for the 14th time at age 36, is, in obvious ways, different from Rafael Nadal, a French Open champion for the first time all the way back in 2005 at age 19.
His hair is thinning on top. The chartreuse T-shirt he wore while overwhelming Casper Ruud 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 in Sunday’s intriguing-for-a-handful-of-minutes final had sleeves, unlike his biceps-baring look of nearly two decades ago. The white capri pants that ran below his knees back in the day were long since traded in for more standard shorts; Sunday’s were turquoise.
Here’s what hasn’t changed along the way to his 22 Grand Slam titles in all, another record, in addition to his between-point mannerisms and meticulous attention paid to the must-be-just-so placement of water bottles and towels: That lefty uppercut of a topspin-slathered, high-bouncing forehand still finds the mark much more frequently than it misses, confounding foes. That ability to read serves and return them with a purpose still stings. That never-concede-a-thing attitude propelling Nadal from side to side, forward and backward, speeding to, and redirecting, balls off an opponent’s racket seemingly destined to be unreachable.
Nadal is nothing if not indefatigable, just as he was in consecutive four-hour-plus victories earlier in the tournament — including against Novak Djokovic, the defending champion and No. 1 seed — and again on this afternoon, even while competing on a left foot he described as feeling “asleep” because of injections to deal with chronic pain. Clouds overhead at the start gave way to the sunlight and blue sky Nadal prefers just as Ruud’s 3-1 lead in the second set suddenly began to evaporate in what would become a match-closing 11-game run for the champion.
Nadal’s victory came two days after his 36th birthday and made him the oldest title winner in the history of the clay-court tournament. Given his age, and, of more concern, the foot that has been an off-and-on problem for years, and particularly in recent weeks, Nadal has said repeatedly that he could can never be sure whether each match at Court Philippe Chatrier might be his last.
During the trophy ceremony, Nadal thanked his family and support team, including a doctor who accompanied him to Paris, for helping him, because otherwise he would have needed to “retire much before.” “I don’t know what can happen in the future,” Nadal told the crowd, “but I’m going to keep fighting to try to keep going.” Later, in an interview with TV rights holder Eurosport, Nadal said he played the match with “no feeling in” his right foot after getting an “injection on the nerve.” Yet he played so crisply and cleanly, accumulating more than twice as many winners as Ruud, 37 to 16. Nadal also committed fewer unforced errors, making just 16 to Ruud’s 26.
When it ended with a down-the-line backhand from Nadal, he chucked his racket to the red clay he loves so much and covered his face with the taped-up fingers on both of his hands.
No man or woman ever has won the singles trophy at any major event more than his 14 in Paris. And no man has won more Grand Slam titles than Nadal.
He is two ahead of rivals Roger Federer, who hasn’t played in almost a year after a series of knee operations, and Djokovic, who missed the Australian Open in January because he is not vaccinated against COVID-19.
For all that he has accomplished already, Nadal now has done something he never managed previously: He is halfway to a calendar-year Grand Slam thanks to titles at the Australian Open and French Open in the same season.
Doesn’t really seem much reason for Nadal to quit now, considering that he navigated his way past four French Open opponents ranked in the top 10 (No. 9 Felix Auger-Aliassime in the fourth round, Djokovic in the quarterfinals, No. 3 Alexander Zverev — who stopped because of a foot injury — in the semifinals, and then No. 8 Ruud).
Nadal improved to 14-0 in finals at Roland Garros and 112-3 overall at his favorite tournament.
“You are a true inspiration for me, for everyone who follows tennis around the world,” said Ruud, a 23-year-old Norwegian participating in his first Grand Slam final, “so I hope — we all hope — that you will continue for some more time.” When the players met at the net for the prematch coin toss, the first chants of “Ra-fa! Ra-fa!” rang out in the 15,000-seat stadium. There would be more such choruses. Ruud heard his own support, especially when he briefly went up in the second set, with some in the stands marking points he won with drawn-out pronouncements of his last name, “Ruuuuuuud,” so it sounded as if they might be booing.
Ruud considers Nadal his idol. He recalls watching all of Nadal’s past finals in Paris on TV. He has trained at Nadal’s tennis academy in Mallorca.
They have played countless practice sets together there with nothing more at stake than bragging rights. Nadal usually won those, and Ruud joked the other day that’s because he was trying to be a polite guest.
The two had never met in a real match until Sunday, when a championship, money, ranking points, prestige and a piece of history were on the line. And Nadal demonstrated, as he has so often, why he’s known as the King of Clay — and among the game’s greatest ever.
“We all know what a champion you are, and today I got to feel how it is to play against you in a final. And it’s not easy,” Ruud said. “I’m not the first victim. I know that there have been many before.” Nadal can now place this latest Coupe des Mousquetaires alongside the trophies he gathered at Roland Garros from 2005-08, 2010-14 and 2017-20. He’s also won the U.S. Open four times and the Australian Open and Wimbledon twice apiece.
“For me, personally, it’s very difficult to describe the feelings that I have,” Nadal said. ”It’s something that I, for sure, never believed — to be here at 36, being competitive again, playing in the most favorite court of my career, one more time in the final. It means a lot to me. Means everything.”