It’s often said that Father Time is undefeated. He must have never met Rafael Nadal.
The old sports adage implies that old age catches up to every athlete at one point or another in their career, but it doesn’t seem to be having that same effect on the Spaniard. Rafa has had a resurgent 2017 season to date, highlighted by La Decima, his 10th French Open title.
“It’s truly incredible. In this final, to win the Decima is very, very special,” Nadal said to the Roland Garros crowd after he defeated Stan Wawrinka 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 in the French Open final. “The feeling I have is impossible to describe. It’s difficult to compare to other places. For me, the nerves and adrenaline I feel when I play on this court is impossible to compare. It’s the most important event of my career without a doubt.”
Nadal bulldozed the competition during his two-week Roland Garros run, dropping just 35 games in his seven matches, the second-fewest by any male winner at a Grand Slam (Bjorn Borg lost 32 games on his way to the 1978 French Open title).
Rafa’s dominance in 2017 began long before he arrived in Paris, beginning with his run at the Australian Open, where he and Roger Federer gave tennis fans a treat with a thrilling five-set final that renewed a once-great rivalry that defined professional tennis for nearly a decade.
Nadal would lose two more times to Federer during the hard-court season, in Indian Wells and Miami, but found his footing once again, and built momentum heading into the clay season.
Playing on the comfortable and familiar clay surface, he rolled through the Monte Carlo draw, which included blowout wins over Alex Zverev and David Goffin on his way to the title. He then won titles in Barcelona and Madrid to win the 30th Masters 1000 title of his career, re-establishing his dominance as “The King of Clay.”
“This is a very emotional period of the season,” said Nadal as he began his clay court campaign. “I really enjoy these tournaments. I just try to go for all of them. I try to compete. I did well in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, and also here. I hope to do the same in Rome.”
Dominic Thiem, who Nadal defeated in both the Barcelona and Madrid finals, would beat Nadal in the Rome quarterfinals, but the groundwork for a French Open run for the Spaniard was already laid.
“I will be in Mallorca fishing or playing golf … I’m going to rest a little bit, I think I deserve it,” said Nadal after Rome. “Then, I will start to prepare for Roland Garros. It’s an important event for me. If you do things well, you have more chances, and I hope to play my best tennis in Roland Garros.”
And he did more than just hope, compiling one of the most dominant runs in Grand Slam history to reach the historic mark of 10 titles at one Grand Slam event.
However, it wasn’t too long ago that there were people writing off Nadal, noting his best days were behind him. While he is still just 31-years-old, there is a lot of mileage on those legs and it showed in 2015. It was the first time in a decade that he failed to lift any of the four major trophies in a given year.
The year was capped off by him blowing a two-sets to love lead to Fabio Fognini at the U.S. Open, and Nadal was left to do some soul-searching.
At the time, the tennis landscape was dominated by Novak Djokovic, who was in the midst of one of the most dominant runs in the history of men’s tennis, putting Nadal on the back burner.
But there is a reason that Nadal is one of the all-time greats. While 2015 was a disappointing season and he dropped in the rankings, the Spaniard remained relatively healthy throughout the season which was an encouraging sign heading into 2016. The injury bug struck again that year as a wrist injury forced him out of the French Open, and despite not compiling the results we have been accustomed to seeing from him, he concluded last year with his health intact.
Coming into the 2017 French Open, a few things fell into place for Nadal. Federer withdrew from the tournament, and Djokovic and world number one Andy Murray were playing inconsistent tennis. With a full slate of clay court matches under his belt, there was no one prepared to take down the King of Clay.
The way in which he dismantled Wawrinka, a former champion at Roland Garros who is known to play his best in the biggest moments, was remarkable.
“He puts this doubt in your head when you play against him,” said Wawrinka. “For sure he’s playing the best he’s ever played, playing more aggressive.”
BBC Radio Analyst and former Wimbledon Champion Pat Cash added to that point:
“He’s got all the attributes you need to just go on and on. He’s in the minds of his opponents,” Cash said. “Even the greats are crumbling at his feet on this surface. They cannot even compete with him. The only two times he’s lost here, he’s been injured. He cannot be touched on this surface. It was an incredible performance.”
The title was the 15th Grand Slam overall for Nadal and his first since 2014, and it was the way in which he did it that was so incredible.
He is now up to number two in the world rankings and has rechanneled the form that made him the best player in the world. His big test now is how it translates to the hard court season and, specifically, the U.S. Open which returns to Flushing Meadows in late August.
We all know his dominance on clay, but will the amount of matches he has already played in 2017 have any lasting impact as we approach the latter half of the season?
Since winning the U.S. Open twice and being a runner-up once over a four-year span from 2010-2013, the hard courts of Flushing Meadows have not been kind to Nadal. After winning the title in 2013, he didn’t play in 2014 due to a wrist injury which led many to proclaim that he was on the downside of his career.
He has been ousted in the third and fourth rounds, respectively, in his last two trips to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
But this version of Nadal is a different one than we have seen in the past couple of years and it will be interesting to see what kind of run he can put together this year.
Either way, Nadal’s performance in Roland Garros was one for the ages, and one that will stand out when they ponder his legacy. He has been able to set aside any discussions about his prime being passed him, and another Grand Slam victory outside of Paris will catapult Rafael Nadal right back into the discussion of the greatest players of all-time.
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org