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By Chris Oddo | @TheFanChild | Tuesday June 11, 2019

 
Nadal

When he's gone and replaced by a Statue on the grounds of Roland Garros, we'll be left to contemplate the shocking nature of his domination.

Photo Source: Anthony Dibon/Icon Sport via Getty Images

An expectant crowd goes silent as beads of perspiration slip past his brow and over the ridge of his nose. In a flash they will fall and become one with the terre battue, like the Spaniard’s footprints in the clay as he maneuvers his way around Court Philippe Chatrier’s ochre surface, a man not so much on a mission as overcome by competitive nirvana.

He serves wide, to the backhand of course, and from there the last of a dozen dominoes begins to fall…

Rafael Nadal captured his record 12th Roland Garros title on Sunday in Paris with a spirited 6-3 5-7 6-1 6-1 victory over Austria’s Dominic Thiem, his great gallop to the finish reinforcing the notion that there are dominant tennis players and then, a click or two higher on the amaze-meter, there is Rafael Nadal’s dominance at Roland Garros.

Time doesn’t stand still at Roland Garros but one man has rendered it ineffectual. 93 wins and 2 losses over 15 appearances. 24-0 in semi-finals and finals, combined—c’est pas mal.

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In Paris the King of Clay has carved out a reality that is more akin to fantasy, a realm so preposterous that many admit to being bored by watching him create magic on the tournament’s showcourts. With 12 titles at a single major, Nadal stands alone as the single most dominant player that one Grand Slam has ever witnessed. At Roland Garros it’s hard to take games off him, let alone sets and God forbid a match.

Do not adjust your television sets, what you saw on Sunday was not archived footage of an old classic. What you did see was a 33-year-old Nadal performing perhaps as authoritatively as he ever has.

At 26—back when the poor lad had only seven Roland Garros titles to his name—many had pegged Nadal as the player that would pay dearly for his physical style of playing the game. Too fast to live, too young to die, they said—he’d have to retire before 30.

Now at 33, he’s still rewriting the history books every clay season, each year a bit more audaciously than the last. The gaudy numbers explode off the page but they don’t tell the story in full.

Nadal’s assault on the history books says more about his ability to ignore the story, to brush back the tidings of super stardom, ennui, fatigue and multiple devastating injuries as he continues to drive himself to play at an insanely high level—even though he’s cleared every hurdle and essentially created a chasm between himself and the field that will be far too wide for future generations to contemplate, let alone approach.

Nadal’s success on clay is a testament to a stable, opportunistic and switched-on mentality as much as it is proof of his revolutionary and jaw-dropping style of tennis. He’s a man that has proven to be immune to the vicissitudes of success and therefore doesn’t fall prey to its trappings. He doesn’t even see himself as great. Nadal is just a humble messenger with a purpose and a passion: to yearn and burn and squeeze every last living microbe of desire out of himself so that he may honor the competition, the sport, his family, his nation…

Some professional tennis players see themselves as God’s gift. Nadal, crazy as it seems, doesn’t see himself as great at all—he sees himself as blessed.

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Those fans that can get over the predictability of his all-out assaults on the competition since he came to Roland Garros and won it on his first try as a teenager in 2005 are blessed to be able to watch him.

To behold Nadal backpedaling across the baseline, taking nine steps to get from the service T to the doubles alley, before he launches an inside-out forehand from outside the tram lines, is to begin to comprehend. Or watch him suddenly change directions in the mid-court as he transitions his footwork and tracks one of Thiem’s defensive lobs back to his baseline. Every point is a dance with Nadal on clay, and from the onset of Sunday's final he was in full flight, fully engaged in the physical struggle that Thiem presented.

But Nadal’s not perfect—nobody is—and we could see that at 2-2 in the opening set when he let a 30-0 lead slip. Thiem won four straight points to draw first blood and bring the crowd to life.

Was it the beginning of something massive for the Austrian? The first point of the sixth game of the opening set would answer that question. Nadal won a brilliant 19-stroke rally in which he moved Thiem wide on the forehand side to open the court before he hit three different overheads to finally win the point. On the next point Thiem lost his balance but still tried to crush the forehand—a mistake Nadal would never make—and missed it wide.

Three points later, after Nadal hammered a howling crosscourt forehand winner, the final was back on serve. This is where Nadal’s competitive genius shines. A match is a march in several acts and his willingness to seek and seize opportunities never ceases. As he took the towel and snatched the balls to serve for the next game the look on his face told us everything we needed to know about his psyche. Far from overjoyed about breaking back—he was already focusing on the next game, looking to make good on the momentum he had just created by breaking serve.

That response, which enabled Nadal to easily secure an opening set that was very much up for grabs through six games (Thiem played incredibly and the tennis was of the highest caliber), was one of two great turning points in Sunday’s final. The other came at the onset of the third set after Thiem had drawn level in the match by securing a break in the final game of set two.

Nadal won 16 of the first 17 points of the third set to secure a 4-0 double-break lead. Thiem, who had fought so valiantly through the first two stanzas, stopped to catch his breath, while unrelenting Nadal pounced.

“He stepped on me,” Thiem would later reflect. “Afterwards it got really tough on me.”

Such is the plight of Rafael Nadal’s competition on the red clay of Roland Garros. One has to have eyes in the back of one’s head to recognize the approach of his salvos, and an overflowing energy reserve to produce the necessary force to resist them.

Nadal attacks in waves and he brings a vast array of tools that has dramatically evolved over the years. Maybe his first step will never be what it was when he emerged as a full-on fever in pirate pants in the mid-2000s but his backhand is now twice as lethal and he can use it to turn his opponents into pawns on the tennis chessboard. Nobody has a better sense of when to close the net off on clay and Nadal can slide into a volley on clay like Korean figure skating legend Yuna Kim used to transition into a double axel on ice—graceful, decisive and seamless.


He was the most wicked, rambunctious athlete that tennis has ever seen when he began this remarkable run at Roland Garros, and all through his early to mid-twenties; 14 years on he is the most complete player with the most diverse arsenal.

Nadal has evolved—dramatically—but there has been one constant over the decade and a half in which he has built his clay empire. We circle back to this point as we see him drop to his back on the clay after Thiem’s forehand return sails long on championship point; Nadal covers his eyes to shade his emotions from the 15,000 cheering spectators.

This victory in Paris—every victory in Paris—is not about being the best or the best ever. It’s not about chasing history or keeping up with his fellow greats. For Nadal it’s about being the best that he can be. It’s about honoring his potential and building the biggest, baddest, most impervious and highly focused Rafa, one that can rise from the ashes of a worrying April against what he perceives to be insurmountable odds to shine in June.

It may seem routine to all who saw it coming and who knew better than to expect any other outcome. But when Rafael Nadal stops winning Roland Garros titles one day in the not too distant future we will all look back in awe, the realization that his simple and sublime quest has yielded the greatest achievement of the greatest era of men’s tennis.

Those beads of sweat that colored the fabled clay of Court Philippe Chatrier, they’ll forever be a part of the fabric of Nadal’s magic in Paris. An improbable feat managed with the most humble of origins.

When he’s gone, replaced no doubt by a statue, we’ll know where to find the true essence of Nadal: in the terre battue, trampled beneath the feet of future generations, who will endeavor but never match what he’s accomplished.

 

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