Like every player who achieves something great, Rafael Nadal had the monument to his success on Sunday. No, this is not about a statue. Rather it was a piece of unfathomable action, the highlight of his domination of Stanislas Wawrinka. The contest was summed up in a few seconds.
A rally between the two players had seen Wawrinka unleash one of his characteristic crosscourt backhands which left Nadal reeling. The Swiss player dispatched the ball in comfort of the knowledge that the final word in the exchange was going to be his. That should have been it. It really should.
But as the ball sped away from him, Nadal zoomed towards it with a blistering slide. It should not be humanly possible to do that. But that is what great players do. They do the impossible so that you do not try it at home. They have done it. You can see it can be done. Now no longer do you need to experiment, lest it go horribly wrong. You know it will.
But for Nadal, of course, it worked. That was not the only time in his career when he reached a ball he should not have. But it does not make it any less awesome.
So, he reached the point from where he could unleash his muscular left hand at it. The racket became an artifice for the genius design he had in his mind. Anticipation, of course, is the hallmark of any great sportsperson. Nadal had a mental image of how it was going to be; he did not even look at the ball as he hit it. The crowd, however, was still none the wiser. A collective gasp of wonderment arrived only after he had slapped the ball. It was going to land in. He knew. Even they knew. A hapless Wawrinka could see his fate too.
He walked away, applauding Nadal. But his back was turned to the player. Who could say what he was saying to himself. At different stages on Sunday, one had spotted a resigned smile on Wawrinka’s face. The last time he had played a final here, a one-set deficit had proven to be surmountable. Novak Djokovic was supposed to be the victor that day. But Wawrinka stole the show.
Apparently you cannot do that to Nadal at Roland Garros, especially when he is setting new standards for excellence. “You can go out there with, you know, all the tactics in the world, but when he’s hitting the ball like that, it’s very difficult to put the ball where you want to.” Those words were uttered by Andy Murray after his chances were demolished by Nadal in the 2014 French Open semi-final. But they could well have come out of Wawrinka’s mouth on Sunday.
The thing about Nadal’s brilliance is that it is an examination of your patience, as a spectator. Even if you plant your tent in his camp, he tests your sense of generosity. Such is Nadal’s tendency to utterly annihilate his opponent — when he is playing at his best, of course — that he sometimes makes you feel sorry for the player on the other side of the court. His dominance can be scathing.
That, of course, is not entirely true. It is fairly well known that Nadal is respectful of his opponents to an excessive degree; sometimes you wonder if it is all an act — a price every polite human being has to pay. Once the match is over, he is certain to unleash his genial self. But the battle scars are not easily forgotten.
As the Spaniard pummelled Wawrinka into submission on Sunday, one was reminded of another campaign where he let little go. The 35 games Nadal lost in Paris over the last fortnight is a record. The previous best was 41, during the 2008 French Open.
In those seven matches he did not even play a tiebreaker, let alone dropping a set. That run to the title saw some incredible results — Fernando Verdasco was thumped 6-1, 6-0, 6-2 in the fourth round, followed by a 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 thrashing of another compatriot Nicolas Almagro. But it was his display in the final which stands out in memory. Nadal’s evisceration of his greatest rival, Roger Federer, took 108 minutes as the Majorcan won his fourth Slam title in Paris. The news of the massacre was relayed by the scoreline as 6-1, 6-3, 6-0.
It was the kind of result which stays with you. You do not just watch one of the greatest players of all-time take a mere four games in three sets, without the gory details seared in your memory. Perhaps, the one-sided nature of that win made the ‘contest’ forgettable for some. But Nadal’s ruthless performance in the Slam final would have had to look hard to find its equal. One suspects that in the corners of the vast Philippe Chatrier Court, the Spaniard’s forehand from that afternoon is still bellowing its screams.
Much like it did on Sunday. When Nadal was undergoing his rough patch that lasted for the most of 2015 and ’16, his longest ally and uncle Toni Nadal identified three areas where his nephew had to improve — strengthen the serve, return the forehand to its former glory and find that competitive hunger again.
This season, Nadal has ticked each of those boxes. The technical work done by him has reaped wonders; his serve has particularly been a revelation thank to the insights provided by new coach Carlos Moya. But it also needs to be stressed that we have once again found a Nadal who cannot make do with what he has. He keeps pushing for more and when it seems it is beyond his grasp, he responds with his own take on a miracle. That reeling forehand on Sunday summed up his refuelled spirit.
Of course, all of it is couched in that overused phrase — hard work. As Toni Nadal once said, “What is talent? Talent is the capacity of work.” The pains of Nadal’s body do not require recounting, nor does it need to be said again that he is defying his age. These are things that we have known for some time now. But what of the future? What shall we expect?
Nadal took a stoic view of his defeat in the Australian Open final. But as he said back then, if he took his good form into France, “good things can happen.” And they did. We should not expect another breakthrough at Wimbledon, his wretched form in recent appearances there would suggest. But on a tennis circuit where the unexpected is the new normal, are you willing to wager a bet?
The arrival of the 15th Grand Slam title has cemented the path of Nadal’s rejuvenation which began in Australia. But is rejuvenation the right word? Literally, it means to make someone young again. Nadal, in tennis terms, cannot go back to the works of his youth. But his game is relevant, it succeeds. So he can look to the future. There are plans to be made and thought about.
Nadal is going to be here for a while.
Updated Date: Jun 12, 2017 11:06 AM