PARIS — He deceived us again, which is, in itself, a great achievement at this stage of the match.
Maybe Rafael Nadal really means it when he talks about his chances at Roland Garros, and there was certainly no rigging involved last month when he limped and grimaced during the final set of a first-round defeat at the Italian Open and looked particularly tired from the grinding and chronic pain in his left foot.
Nadal indeed found himself in uncharted territory as he returned to his home ground of Roland Garros. He was very short on clay court matches and without any clay court titles this season at the start of the tournament. Novak Djokovic seemed to regain momentum. Carlos Alcaraza young Spaniard, seemed to rise like a rocket.
But there is no tonic like Parisian red clay for Nadal. And on Sunday, after blasting his way through the top half laden with the draw, he was way too much, even at less than his best, for No. 8 seed Casper Ruud in the Roland men’s final. -Garros, winning 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 in a match that lasted 2 hours and 18 minutes.
The win secured Nadal his 14th men’s singles title at the tournament, extending a Roland Garros record that looks more unbeatable with each passing spring.
He also extended his lead in the race to three majors with Djokovic and Roger Federer. Nadal now has a men’s record 22 Grand Slam singles titles, two more than Djokovic, whom Nadal beat in the quarter-finals here, and Federer, who at 40 is still recovering from his last knee surgery.
Sunday’s triumph, attended by Billie Jean King and King Felipe VI of Spain, also made Nadal, at 36, the oldest man to win the French Open, overtaking compatriot Andrés Gimeno , who won the title in 1972 at age 34.
“I never believed that I would be here at 36 being competitive again, playing once again on the most important ground of my career in the final,” Nadal said. “It means a lot to me, means everything. It just means a lot of energy to try to keep going.
Nadal’s tone lately has been one of farewell: he has repeatedly raised the possibility that he could play his last Roland-Garros. But after slamming the door on Ruud on Sunday and then hugging him at the net, Nadal made it clear that this was not going to be the tennis equivalent of a no-win grand slam.
“I don’t know what may happen in the future, but I will keep fighting to try and keep going,” he said, as the sold-out crowd of 15,000, clearly aware of the speculation, howled his approval.
He certainly looked set for more against Ruud, gaining speed and precision as the game wore on. Nadal wasn’t at his best early on and was far from his best at times: losing serve in the third game with two double faults and an unforced forehand offset to the middle of the net. But Ruud also struggled to find his way, looking pissed off and limited on crucial points in the first set, then getting outplayed on crucial points in the later stages after working on his nerves.
His only real push came at the start of the second set, when he again broke Nadal’s serve to take a 3-1 lead, but at 30-30 in the following game, Ruud lined up a forehand at the upside down and perhaps felt excellence was required, went overboard and missed. Nadal broke him on the next point and wouldn’t lose another game: reeling off 11 in a row and ending the victory with a backhand down the line in the sun.
Nadal is in the midst of one of his most remarkable seasons, despite the chronic pain that left him so down in Rome and required intensive treatment in Paris.
After missing almost the entire second half of the 2021 season with a foot problem – he suffers from a condition known as Müller-Weiss syndrome – he roared to win the Open d Australia, rallying to defeat Daniil Medvedev in a five-set final.
He then started the season with 20 consecutive victories before losing in the final of the BNP Paribas Open in March against the American Taylor Fritz, partly because of a new injury: a stress fracture in the ribs. It forced Nadal to take another extended break and miss most of the clay-court season before returning to Madrid last month.
He was beaten by Alcaraz in the quarter-finals and then beaten by Denis Shapovalov in the round of 16 in Rome. But Nadal arrived at Roland Garros with his longtime doctor Angel Ruiz-Cotorro, who was able to help Nadal deal with the pain and a very difficult draw.
Nadal had to overcome four of the nine seeds to win the title: No. 9 Felix Auger-Aliassime, No. 1 Djokovic, No. 3 Alexander Zverev and No. 8 Ruud in what proved to be the most lopsided of all those matches.
Nadal has not only won 14 French Open singles titles, he has won all 14 singles finals he has played at Roland Garros.
So many recordings. So much enduring excellence, and Ruud, an affable 23-year-old Norwegian, certainly needed no reminder of his opponent’s exploits when he entered the Philippe Chatrier court as the first Norwegian to play in a singles final. of the Grand Slam.
Ruud, who broke into the top 10 last year, had two main role models as he emerged from a nation better known for excelling on snow than on clay. There was his father, Christian, who coached him and was a 39th-ranked tour-level player in 1995. And there was Nadal, with his extreme forehand and unwavering fighting spirit.
He started training regularly with his team at Nadal’s tennis academy in Mallorca, Spain in 2018 and even played – and lost – practice sets against Nadal.
He also played golf with Nadal, thinking it was going to be a relaxed experience only to find that Nadal’s competitive streak was not limited to the tennis court.
But Sunday was Ruud’s first chance to face Nadal on tour.
“Playing Rafa in a Roland Garros final is probably the biggest challenge in this sport,” Ruud said.
That was before the final, and on Sunday afternoon after it ended in a rush, Ruud made it clear in his finalist speech that he hadn’t changed his mind.
“It’s not easy, I’m not the first victim,” Ruud told Nadal. “I know there have been many before.”
And not to be fooled again, but it will be intriguing to see, in light of Nadal’s age and increasingly nostalgic mood, if Ruud turns out to be the last.
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