Rafael Nadal’s Unparalleled Dominance of the French Open
There is no more difficult challenge in sport than to defeat Rafael Nadal on Court Philippe Chatrier, the main show court of the French Open. It is, for all relevant purposes, his home, his house, the place where he wins and wins and wins again, the way that John Wooden’s U.C.L.A. basketball teams of the nineteen-sixties and seventies won game after game in Pauley Pavilion, which is the only analogy I can summon from my six decades of sports-watching. But Pauley Pavilion was U.C.L.A.’s home court. Nadal made Chatrier his. From his first appearance there, as a teen-ager, he was attracted to its spacious expanses of clay behind the baselines—which allowed him to position himself deep, to buy time on service returns and through long rallies—attracted also to the quality of the red crushed brick, the terre battue, which sent his topspin forehands bouncing above his opponents’ shoulders, yielding, often enough, short, lifeless replies. He won that first French Open he played, and it must have stirred him, as it did me, watching him from courtside as he warmed up before matches on Chatrier last week, to hear the announcer, as he introduced the competitors, pronounce each of the eleven years Nadal had earned the championship trophy, his voice growing theatrically louder with each year, the crowd gradually joining in, chanting along or simply standing and cheering, as we neared the end of the miraculous roll of années: deux mille dix-sept! DEUX MILLE DIX-HUIT!
Nadal now has twelve French Open championships. A bit of perspective: until Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Nadal came along, Pete Sampras led the list of Grand Slam championship winners with an all-time total of fourteen. On Sunday afternoon, with the wind and rain that had marred play at Roland-Garros for days yielding to comfortable Paris-in-springtime weather, Nadal defeated Dominic Thiem 6–3, 5–7, 6–1, 6–1. A bit more perspective: it was not as lopsided as the scoring line suggests. The first hour or so was as good—with lengthy rallies, harefooted scrambles, keen variations of pace and placement—as clay-court tennis gets. In the hour that followed, Thiem managed to take a set from Nadal, something he’d never before done at Roland-Garros, despite being, arguably, the second-best men’s clay-surface player at the moment. Even in the final two sets, Thiem reached balls and struck shots that should have earned him points, but didn’t—not against Nadal. Which is to say that Thiem played championship-level tennis, but not Nadal-on-Chatrier-level tennis.
There are particular aspects to Thiem’s game that make it difficult for him to beat Nadal, though he had beaten him four times on clay, and lost eight times, before this match. Thiem requires time to set up his groundstrokes—he takes his racquet way back, especially when getting ready to deliver his one-handed drive backhand. He has to get his adjustment steps just right and his feet firmly planted. This buys Nadal that extra second to reëstablish court position after he’s been yanked to the corner by, say, a deep, sharply angled shot. A player like Djokovic can deny Nadal that time by taking the ball early, on the rise, or by hitting big balance-defying down-the-line shots at full stretch. But that’s not Thiem. And Thiem, like Federer in years past, struggles with Nadal’s serve to his backhand, especially in the ad court. The lefty’s slice skids out wide on him; more than once on Sunday, Thiem’s feet got tangled in pursuit of it. And Nadal kept showing him that serve, unceasingly as the match wore on.
Much has been made over the years, rightly, of Nadal’s relentlessness. He plays every point as if it is match point. He runs full out in the direction of balls that he clearly can’t get to. It’s his approach to tennis: he is as remarkable a competitor as the game—any game, I suspect—has ever known. This is mostly ascribed to his calm capacity for physical suffering. Even Nadal talks about it this way. It’s something akin to what you glimpse in, say, El Greco’s “St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata.” Nadal’s heart and legs carry him to another plane.
But perhaps not enough is made of Nadal’s mind, and its unceasing focus. The best-of-five-set matches that the men play at majors are as much a test of concentration and alertness as of fitness and endurance. During the second set on Sunday, Nadal and Thiem exchanged quick and relatively effortless holds of service; then, at the very end, Nadal wavered, as he sometimes does when he’s serving to even things with a set on the line. A forehand an inch or so long, another an inch wide, two break points for Thiem, and the set was Thiem’s, 7–5, and the match was even. Nadal took a bathroom break, and seemed to re-gathered his confidence, and his attentiveness. In the next game, he broke Thiem’s serve without losing a point. In the one after that, he held his serve without losing a point. Everything he hit looked hard and clean and placed with consideration. In thirteen minutes he was up 4–0. The match was as good as his. Before long, he was hoisting the Musketeers’ cup for the twelfth time.
Philippe Chatrier was named for a French tennis player who was more consequential as a French tennis official. It will never be renamed for Nadal. But, next year, Court 1 at Roland-Garros, the so-called Bullring, will be torn down to create room for a much-needed grassy open space on the cramped tennis grounds. A statue of Rafa would not be out of place. His arms raised, perhaps, his face turned skyward, his eyes squeezed closed as he savors yet another championship victory on Chatrier.