Once a very promising soccer player, he has long favored the No. 9, traditionally worn by strikers. But the No. 10 is what has kept bringing him joy and fulfillment this spring. He already had won a record 10th singles title on the clay in Monte Carlo and in Barcelona.
That he managed it in Paris, too, came as a surprise to no one, certainly not the tournament organizers who unfurled a No. 10 banner in the stands high above the Court Philippe Chatrier after his victory and had a No. 10 painted on the podium.
“I try my best in all events, that’s the real thing,” Nadal said. “But the feeling I have here is impossible to describe and difficult to compare to another place. For me the nerves, the adrenaline that I feel when I play in this court is impossible to compare to another feeling. Just for me it’s the most important event in my career without a doubt.”
The victory capped what can be rightly seen as Nadal’s most dominant performance at Roland Garros. He did not drop a set in his seven matches and lost a total of 35 games, the second fewest by any Open era men’s champion at any Grand Slam event in which all the matches were best-of-five sets.
Bjorn Borg, the pokerfaced Swede who was the best men’s claycourt player in history until Nadal’s emergence, dropped only 32 games en route to the 1978 French Open title.
Sunday’s victory also ended a three-year drought of major titles for Nadal, who won his ninth French Open in 2014 before being superseded by Novak Djokovic and slowed by injuries and dents to his confidence.
This season he has returned undeniably to the fore: dropping weight and recovering all the sting in his fearsome forehand.
Wawrinka, a powerful 32-year-old from Switzerland, had never lost in his three previous Grand Slam singles finals. He beat Nadal in the 2014 Australian Open and Djokovic in the 2015 French Open and in the 2016 United States Open. But defeating a healthy, confident Nadal on the terre battue of Paris is still one of sport’s greatest challenges.
Nadal is 31 now. A lesser competitor might have lost his edge long ago, but Nadal is still sliding after drop shots and throwing his body into heavy topspin forehands with the gusto of a younger champion.
Much has changed since his first victory at Roland Garros in 2005, the year of his first appearance in the tournament.
In 2005, Nadal was partial to sleeveless shirts and pirate pants.
In 2005, Court Philippe Chatrier had the no aerial camera traveling on a wire above it.
And in 2005, one could stroll up to the entrance of Roland Garros Stadium with a ticket and enter the gates without being frisked or wanded by security officials.
The world is very different, but the men’s game has remained surprisingly resistant to change. Nadal’s careerlong rival, Roger Federer, beat him to win the Australian Open at age 35 in January. Now Nadal has won another French Open, closing the gap with Federer in the standings for career Grand Slam singles titles.
Federer remains on top with 18. With Sunday’s win, his 15th, Nadal broke a tie with Pete Sampras for second place.
Two-thirds of Nadal’s major titles have come at Roland Garros, where he has an astounding 79-2 record. His only defeats came in the fourth round in 2009 against Robin Soderling and the quarterfinals in 2015 against Djokovic. He has never lost a French Open final, and his 10 victories in Paris make him the first player to win 10 Grand Slam singles titles at the same tournament in the Open era.
Martina Navratilova won nine at Wimbledon from 1978 to 1990. Margaret Court’s 11 titles at the Australian Open are the overall record, but seven of those came when it was an amateur event called the Australian Championships.
What makes Nadal’s 10 titles in Paris all the more remarkable is that they came in a top-heavy era in the men’s game. Federer and Djokovic are excellent on the clay and, if not for Nadal, surely would have won more than just one Roland Garros title apiece.
Nadal has beaten great players, and often beaten up on great players, to maintain his dominance. But if that dominance continues, one thing is expected to be different.
He has been coached since the beginning by his uncle, Toni Nadal, who gave him his first lesson in Majorca and has remained by his side throughout his career. But Toni announced this year that he would stop traveling with his nephew on a full-time basis after this season. Carlos Moyá, a former No. 1 and a fellow Majorcan, is now part of Nadal’s coaching team, and he is expected to take over the lead position next year.
“Without him, not one would be possible,” Nadal said of his uncle on Sunday.
Neither Nadal could have envisioned 10 titles when the pair made their first visit to Roland Garros together in 2005. They were both just delighted that the 19-year-old Nadal was in the event.
Twelve years later, the tournament now belongs a bit to both of them. To underscore that, the French Tennis Federation was prepared on Sunday. At the trophy ceremony, with Nadal already holding the traditional Coupe des Mousquetaires, Toni Nadal emerged from the tunnel bearing a second trophy: a replica of the original but with a different inscription.
This one bore Nadal’s name and the phrase “La Decima.” This one, he gets to keep.
Not even a gifted child brimming with ambition would have expected to win 10 French Open singles titles. It sounded preposterous, but it looked so very logical on Sunday as Nadal once again had an answer for everything his worthy opponent could ask.
Now some gifted child hitting forehands and backhands, in Majorca or somewhere else, knows where to start the dreaming.
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