PARIS — The king of Spain was in the stands of Roland Garros on Sunday. So was the king of Norway, so was Billie Jean King. They had all come to see the King of Clay, Rafael Nadal, and he did not disappoint.
Under a beautiful Paris sky, Nadal won his 14th French open title, beating Casper Ruud of Norway, 6-3, 6-3, 6-0. He’s won this tournament for the 14th time, having won all but four years since 2005. Nadal’s track record here is less a statistic than it is a laugh line. He’s now 112-3 at Roland Garros. He has won the French open as many times as Pete Sampras has won majors. By winning, he now has his 22nd Grand Slam title, surging ahead of Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, who are tied at 20. Nadal’s record in finals is now 23 of his last 26. Apart from all his tennis sorcery, this is one of the great competitors in the history of sports—any sport and all sports.
For all his breathtaking tennis, Nadal’s road this year may have been his most difficult. Nevermind the foot injury that cast doubt upon his performance and caused him to speak about his tennis mortality, this 2022 French Open marked the first time he ever needed to beat four top 10 opponents to win the title. In the fourth round, he beat Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada in five sets. It was a grueling match made more so by the fact that his opponent is coached by Nadal’s uncle Tony. He returned two days later to beat his rival Djokovic in their 59th career match, a four-setter that went well beyond midnight. In the semifinals, he won the first set against Alexander Zverev and then won when the third-seeded German gruesomely rolled his ankle.
For all that drama, Nadal was at his Nadal-est on Sunday, doing what he usually does: breaking serve—he took Ruud’s serve apart in six of the first 10 service games; bringing his lefty funk to bear; and simply owning this court as if it is his own, which of course it is.
Spare a thought for Ruud here. Playing deep into a major for the first time, the 23-year-old from Norway acquitted himself well and—despite the lopsided score line—did not even play that badly. He simply was playing the best clay court player of all time, who was in form. Ruud is now ranked a career high No. 6 and we will hear much more from him. But today was about Nadal and his excellence.
This was as much a coronation as a match. And now there is suspense over whether, at age 36, he will ever play again—here or elsewhere. But the fans got what they came for. So did the various kings. The King of Clay still reigns, for a 14th-straight time.
Let’s see what happens from here. Rafa has said that his chronic foot condition could bring his career to an end. Rather than have it numbed with injections, he’s going to try a new treatment next week, a “radio frequency injection…trying to burn the nerve a little bit,” as he put it. If it works, he’ll play Wimbledon, where, for the first time, he’ll be going for the third leg of the Grand Slam.
If it doesn’t work, Nadal will have to decide whether to have major surgery. At 36, it may or may not be worth it to take that risk to prolong his career. If he doesn’t keep playing, though, he’s already had a worthy swan song with his first back-to-back Australian Open and French Open titles.
When Rafa came to Roland Garros as a muscle-bound, stringy-haired teenager, the crowds in Paris weren’t overly welcoming. At first, they didn’t like that he used his “brutal” style to beat their favorite, Roger Federer. Then they grumbled at his relentless dominance. Nadal’s uncle Toni called them “stupid” when they cheered his nephew’s defeat to Robin Soderling in 2009.
This year was different. Maybe the fans missed him during the pandemic. Maybe there were more Spanish people in the audience. Or, as Rafa himself said, maybe they realized he wasn’t going to be around, and winning their tournament, forever. Whatever the reason, they cheered him and chanted his name over the last two weeks in a way that wouldn’t have seemed possible 15 years ago. Rafa certainly heard them.
“Can’t thank enough everybody for the support since the first day that I get here, no?” he said on Sunday. “Very emotional.”
It was about time Nadal felt the love in Paris. His efforts to win this title over and over haven’t just elevated his own career; they’ve elevated Roland Garros as well. Here’s someone who has cared enough about a tournament to keep doing whatever it took to win it, long after he had nothing left to prove there.
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