His empire of dirt
Minutes after Rafael Nadal had won the French Open on Sunday night, the Wikipedia entry of the tournament had been edited to read: “French Open is a major tennis tournament held over two weeks at the Stade Roland-Garros in Paris, beginning in late May and ending after Rafael Nadal kisses the trophy.”
Death, taxes and Rafa winning at Roland Garros. Barring two blips, the adage has stayed true for 15 years.
Mind you, this is not the Roland Garros of 2005. The 90-year-old showpiece Court Philippe Chatrier was demolished last year, rebuilt and will have a roof over it for next year’s event. The Court No. 1, lovingly called the “Bullring” for its brutal, intimate setting, won’t be as fortunate. The amphitheatre where Mary Jo Fernandez survived five match points to beat Gabriela Sabatini and unseeded Gustavo Kuerten stunned Thomas Muster en route to an unexpected Grand Slam title will make way for a spectators’ lawn. An ode to the changing times, the last match in the Bullring — site of the 18-year-old matador Nadal’s tournament debut — was an eSports contest.
More understandably, this isn’t the Rafael Nadal of 2005. The once thick and lustrous mane is now thinning. The legs, which ran this game of millimetres and milliseconds, are slowing down. From the belligerent prodigy, a thorn in the side of Roger Federer and his fans, Nadal evolved into a larger-than-life figure terrorising tennis players on the red dirt. He was the phantom and the French Open his opera.
But Nadal had never looked more mortal than during Sunday’s final.
In the early goings, Dominic Thiem out-Nadaled Nadal. The 6-3 opening set never told the whole story, and the 5-7 loss in the second confirmed the suspicion: That trusty old baseline was betraying the Spaniard, who lost the majority of the long rallies from back of the court. The young Rafa would have gone blow-for-blow. This wily 33-year-old cut rallies short and rushed to the net. Thiem never recovered from the adrenaline dump of taking a set off Nadal in a French Open final — the latter took it as a sleight and fired up.
On Friday, this newspaper explained how Nadal’s superior mobility accentuates his strengths on clay. But the mental fortitude or pain threshold is a lot tougher to break down. This is a man who contested a Grand Slam final with a blister on his hand the size of a Rs 10 coin. A man who, according to his uncle Toni, has been “living with pain and painkillers since 2005”. Nadal characteristically shrugged off the recurring knee tendinitis and foot troubles during the worst start to his clay season in years. And that made his admission of self-doubt all the more refreshing.
“I have had a very difficult year with a lot of physical problems. One month ago, I didn’t even know (if) I would be here,” he said after the final. “I lost a little bit of that energy because I had too many issues in a row… Is tough when you receive one, then another.”
With 12 French Open titles, Nadal has now doubled Bjorn Borg’s haul at Roland Garros and quadrupled Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander and Gustavo Kuerten’s. The shrinking clay season has added to the homogeneous nature of modern tennis, and it remains hard to foresee a pretender to the throne. There’s a fear that Nadal’s imminent exit would further devalue clay and leave the men’s field resembling the women’s free-for-all.
As for Thiem, the one top clay-court specialist remaining, his time is sure to come. The 25-year-old has four wins over Nadal on the surface. The last two French Open finals had shades of Wimbledon circa mid-2000s, when Nadal stormed Federer’s bastion, stretching him to four sets in 2006, to five in 2007 and dethroning the Swiss in 2008.
Nadal embodies the identity of French Open and clay tennis, and his latest triumph should be celebrated as such. But we should also start preparing for the day he fades from view. YouTube is littered with Nadal montages, set to orchestral scores and electro music. Someone should upload the highlights of Sunday’s final against Thiem, set to Johnny Cash’s rendition of Hurt.
And you could have it all/ My empire of dirt/I will let you down/I will make you hurt.