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French Open 2017: Sharper Rafael Nadal earns the first perfect 10 in tennis’ Open Era

Stanislas Wawrinka was fighting a losing cause. Rafael Nadal stepped onto the court, sent a forehand flying to Wawrinka’s backhand, then another one, and another one, and another one. Pulling him a little wider, sending the ball with more top spin, to kick higher on Wawrinka’s single-handed backhand all the time. Wawrinka was fending off the barrage bravely, but everyone knew how it was going to end. Like he had done to the other Swiss ace — Roger Federer — countless times on the Parisian clay, Nadal was pressing the backhand till it broke. And it did, to give Nadal the set point in the first set. He drew another wild forehand from Wawrinka to polish off the set.

Even in that set pattern of play, Nadal was not just turning back the clock. At 31, he was even better than his previous best at this French Open. Fitter, faster, stronger. His quest for La Decima has turned into a pursuit of perfection. And in tennis, Nadal was the first to a perfect 10 in the Open era.

Rafael Nadal returns to Stan Wawrinka during their French Open final. Reuters

Rafael Nadal returns to Stan Wawrinka during their French Open final. Reuters

Australia’s Margaret Court, with 11 singles Grand Slam titles at the Australian Open from 1960-73, is the only player to have more wins at a single Major.

After the win, after his familiar fall to the red clay to celebrate his incredible feat, Nadal sat in contemplation on his bench, and let a few tears flow. When he was awarded the trophy, he cuddled and kissed it before giving it the customary bite. He had missed it dearly.

“I play my best at all events, but the feeling here is impossible to describe. It's impossible to compare it to another place,” Nadal said on receiving the Coupe des Mousquetaires. "The nerves, the adrenaline, I feel on the court are impossible to compare to another feeling. This is the most important event in my career.”

He now has a win-loss record of 79-2 at the French Open. His only defeats came against Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009 and in the 2015 quarter-final against Novak Djokovic.

The past two years had been rough on the Spaniard. After winning five successive titles from 2010-2014, Nadal had been dethroned by Djokovic. Last year, he had withdrawn from the event with a wrist injury. It looked like his attritional game, which led to persistent injuries, was going to consume him.

But 2017 brought some hope. Astonishingly, he reached the final of the Australian Open. He had some success during the American hard-court swing, even though he fell to that familiar foe Federer twice and couldn’t quite pick up a title win. As soon as the surface changed to clay, the spring in Nadal’s stride returned. At Monte Carlo and Barcelona, he picked up his 10th titles, then added Madrid Masters to the tally. Nadal was unstoppable, ruthless; he was gaining speed for the Roland Garros rout.

That’s what it turned out to be in the past fortnight. Nadal has always been great on clay, with a practiced poise of dictating rallies from well behind the baseline. But this year, somehow, he was sharper. The serve was hitting all the right spots, the forehand had its zing back. It seemed like Nadal had been fitted with an internal radar telling him where to move even before his rival had executed the shot. He was not only super quick to get the ball, but also sent it back with even more force.

It was like, through the years of trundling on the red dirt, Nadal had become a lot more efficient on it. He dropped only 35 games through the seven rounds. Only Bjorn Borg, who lost 32 games at the 1978 French Open, had dropped lesser.

Sunday’s final was supposed to be between one of the game’s best attackers versus the ultimate defender. Wawrinka came in with a reputation of blazing big shots, but he had also spent five more hours than Nadal on the court through the tournament. He had been pushed physically during the five-set semi-final clash against Andy Murray. But whether it was his conditioning or Nadal’s all-court superiority, by the second set the Swiss looked like he had no fight left. He shouted, grunted, broke the racquet, came up with a few sparks of brilliance, but then quickly burned out.

Thiem had tried it on Friday, Wawrinka on Sunday — Nadal is impossible to hit through. The power hitters were just not given the time and space by Nadal’s deep groundstrokes, laced with that wicked top spin. A few of Nadal’s forehands recorded a spin of more than 4000 rpm. Like it had against Thiem, the heavy spin in the ball threw off Wawrinka’s timing in the single-handed backhand, a shot he had used to power past opponents.

A proof of Nadal’s much-improved serve came early on, when he faced a break point in the third game. The Spaniard served an ace, and two service winners to bail out of that situation. That also turned out to be Wawrinka’s only chance at break.

Meanwhile, Nadal kept making inroads on the Wawrinka serve, earning 13 break points and converting six of them. As he usually does, Nadal used his forehand to dictate play and move the big Swiss side to side, finding impossible angles to test his endurance. In the second set, Wawrinka seemed to have finished the point with a slapping backhand cross-court, but Nadal zipped across and cracked a forehand winner on the run. Wawrinka had to join in with the 15,000-odd crowd at the Court Philippe Chartrier in applause. It wasn’t a day he was going to win.

“If you play Rafa, if you’re not completely free with what you think and what you’re going to do and not completely relaxed the way you’re going to play, you have no chance,” Wawrinka said. “That’s what happened today. For sure he’s playing the best he’s ever played.”

The battle was over in two hours and five minutes. At Roland Garros, it was the return of the King.

Updated Date: Jun 12, 2017 13:33 PM

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