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By Chris Oddo | @TheFanChild | Thursday October 15, 2020


All of his Roland Garros triumphs are mind-blowing, but Rafael Nadal's 13th Roland-Garros title may have been his most improbable - and impressive.

Photo Source: Getty

He taps his Black Nikes with the frame of his Babolat and out comes the clay, almost as if it is oozing from his very being. The stubs of tape on the fingers of his left hand are there to protect his calloused skin, worn from furious sessions of high-intensity hitting, carried out with a singular purpose in mind.

Tennis Express

To create the opportunity.

Rafael Nadal, the one and only King of Clay, sits at his chair between games of Sunday’s Roland Garros final and takes a drink, his legs shaking to the tune of some ancient battle hymn, his water bottles fastidiously placed at his feet. What he’s about to accomplish is both incomprehensible and routine. An impossible level of domination becomes more absurd with each passing season. 10, 11, 12, 13? Records broken, then trashed the very next season by an indomitable, incessant force.

For Nadal, the quest is less about history and more about roots. His greatness in Paris, year after year, is nothing but an offering. A ceremony. Court Philippe Chatrier, for him, isn’t a place to be coronated, it’s a place to pay homage.

Whether Nadal wins, as he did in straight sets over Novak Djokovic on Sunday, and as he nearly always does at Roland Garros, or whether he loses, as has happened just two times, it’s the same simplicity that characterizes Nadal’s unrelenting ascendance. A century of clay-court victories have been notched, and always the same plan is hatched as the road to Roland Garros makes a bend and points to Paris.

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Even in 2020, the season that presented a far different and more difficult challenge for the Spaniard, it had to be the same.

Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, Nadal had to work on a deadline to find his form in Paris this fall. For the 34-year-old Mallorcan, a creature of habit if there ever was one, it was a frantic, worrisome and stressful road to Roland Garros.

He came to Paris as undercooked as he’d ever been on his beloved red clay. In six months’ time Nadal had played just three shake-the-rust-off contests in Rome, including a dispiriting loss to Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman in the quarterfinals, one that left Nadal rattled and vowing to do the work necessary to be ready in time for yet another Roland Garros title defense - even if he didn’t feel it would be possible.

“Now is not the moment to find excuses. Just the moment to accept that I didn't play well enough,” Nadal told the press as he prepared to depart Rome.

For the first time in a while it felt like the odds were stacked against Nadal as Roland Garros approached. He knew he was not ready and he knew that time was working against him.

“Losing that many serves, you can't expect to win a match, no?” he said of his performance against Schwartzman. “Something that I have to fix. I know how to do it. I'm gonna keep working and keep practicing with the right attitude and try to give me a chance to be ready.”

Three weeks later we find that Nadal kept his promise. He kept working, continued searching for solutions, and was more than ready to protect his clay-court castle when pitted against World No.1 Novak Djokovic in Sunday’s final.

It was Nadal’s most improbable triumph at Roland Garros, but shouldn’t we have seen it coming?

The unique challenges that Nadal faced in this tournament were supposed to mark the beginning of the end of his domination in Paris. Soggy, slow playing conditions, cold weather, low-bouncing clay and a heavier ball that the Spaniard deemed “dangerous” before the tournament started all seemed to be conspiring against him. Little did we know that Nadal would be the force that conspired against the conditions - by the end of the fortnight he hadn’t just accepted them, he had mastered them.

But it was a process that took time. After taking revenge on Schwartzman in straight sets in the semifinals, Nadal told reporters that he was not quite there yet, but getting closer.

“I know I have to make a step forward,” he said after that victory, hinting that his improbable race against time was almost complete. “I think I did one today. But for Sunday is not enough. I need to make another one. That's what I'm looking for. I am going to work hard to try to make that happen.”

We all know what happened next.

Nadal curled his taped fingers around his trusty Babolat and proceeded to paint a clay-court masterpiece. Three weeks ago he had been surrounded by doubts, fearing that the challenges of this autumnal edition of Roland Garros may prove too great. On Sunday, there he was, choking back tears and sinking his pearly whites into the Coupe des Mousquetaires for the thirteenth time.

“For me, honestly, one month and a half ago if you tell me you're going to have this trophy with you again, I will say, This year will probably be too difficult,” Nadal said after handing Djokovic the stinging 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 defeat.

And so goes the story of the swashbuckling Nadal, who first burst onto the scene 15 years ago in Paris by slamming through the draw to take the title on his debut. In 2020, he’s not the same phenom from a physical standpoint, but if there’s anything he now lacks in terms of explosiveness or power, he more than makes up for it with intellect, drive and determination.

Nadal’s tireless dedication to perfecting his craft on all surfaces over the years has taught him to be open to change and it has enabled him to think on his feet. He may have played better in Paris, back in the days when the spin of his forehand could shake the foundations of Court Philippe Chatrier, but Nadal’s 2020 Roland Garros title may be his most impressive ever because of how he had to find ways to win in conditions that were considered very unsuitable to his game.

“I was able to adapt well,” Nadal said on Sunday. “I was able to be positive in every circumstance that I was facing during the whole event, trying to accept all the challenges in terms of sometimes the feeling on the ball hasn't been great because of the cold and everything. But I take it in a positive way, no? I just tried to work every day with the right determination, looking for my goals.”

By winning the title without dropping a set for the fourth time, Nadal becomes the first men’s player in history to have won a major without dropping a set four different times. By claiming his sixth major title since turning 30, Nadal stands alone on the ATP’s list of major singles titles won beyond the age of 30. By tying Roger Federer at 20 major titles, Nadal introduces the possibility that he may indeed be the player that finishes with more Grand Slam singles titles than any other man.

All those jaw-dropping numbers paint a picture of dominance, as does Nadal’s career record at Roland Garros, which now stands at 100-2. But the underlying theme of the Spaniard’s greatness has always been the opposite: doubt. Thanks to humility and his burning desire to defeat his demons by outworking them, Nadal has carved a deeper impression into the annals of Grand Slam tennis than any other player, male or female.

“Doubts are part of the life,” Nadal said on Sunday. “I always say the same, no? For me doubts are good because it means that you don't consider yourself too good.”

13 Roland Garros titles, and counting - an insane achievement gets more mind-boggling with each passing title - now that’s too good.

“All the superlatives you can use, he deserves them,” Djokovic told reporters after his defeat on Sunday. “I mean, he lost two times in his entire career. Winning 13 times, yeah, there's not much you can say.”

This was supposed to be the year that the music stopped for Nadal. Faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, his quest was a race against time and tide that many believed he was sure to lose.

And yet there he was, cradling that Coupe des Mousquetaires close to his body on Sunday, relishing in a moment that he feared would never come.


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