Even Stan Wawrinka had to smile before Sunday’s French Open final when the stadium announcer listed year-by-year each of the nine previous titles Rafael Nadal had won at Roland Garros.
Another one can now be added to the list — and it is one for the ages — after the Spaniard crushed Wawrinka 6-2 6-3 6-1 to become the first man to win the same grand slam on 10 occasions.
Indeed it is a feat that may never be duplicated.
Only twelve months ago a tearful Nadal bailed from his favorite tournament in Paris in the first week with a wrist injury, another in a seemingly endless list of ailments to derail the 31-year-old.
Be it his knees, wrist or appendicitis, Nadal has always managed to recover and rediscover some of his finest tennis.
Agonizingly close to winning a 15th major at the Australian Open in January — he lost to great rival and Wawrinka’s fellow Swiss Roger Federer after holding a break lead in the fifth set — there was simply no denying Nadal at Roland Garros as he ended a three-year drought at majors.
Nadal moved into sole possession of second place in men’s majors, pulling away from American Pete Sampras and once again getting to within three of Federer.
And for the third time — after 2008 and 2010 — he won the French Open title without conceding a set. He averaged less than two hours on court.
He is not dubbed the ‘King of Clay’ for no reason.
Gustavo Kuerten, the much loved Brazilian who was feted along with other tennis Hall of Famers prior to the finale, insisted last week Nadal could win several more French Opens. If he does so next year, his 11 titles would match what Margaret Court accomplished at the Australian Open in the 1960s and 70s. She is the lone other tennis player to reach double digits at majors.
Certainly Nadal’s form suggests he has plenty of good tennis left in him. He’ll want those injuries to stay away.
But if he does continue to pile up victories at Roland Garros, it will be without his influential coach, his Uncle Toni. He is expected to stop traveling with his nephew next year, with former grand slam winner Carlos Moya — currently Nadal’s co-coach — taking on more of the load.
All those years ago, it was Toni’s decision to turn Nadal from a right-hander — his dominant hand outside of tennis — to a lefty.
There is no greater challenge in tennis than trying to defeat Nadal in a best-of-five set match on clay, so Wawrinka will probably look back on his fortnight with fondness once the immediate disappointment fades.
He lost his first grand slam final in four attempts, having opened his account by topping Nadal at the 2014 Australian Open.
Known for being one of the fittest players around, perhaps his 4 1/2 hour win over world No. 1 Andy Murray in Friday’s semifinals wasn’t — physically — the best preparation.
In the first set however, the Swiss controlled most of the rallies as Nadal opted to sit back and not force matters.
Nadal saved the first break point in the third game with a good save, then Wawrinka immediately saved four. But Nadal pulled away to win four straight games from 2-2.
It was a steamy day in Paris — temperatures hovered around 30 degrees Celsius — a boost to Nadal’s heavily spun forehand.
He clearly stepped up his game in the second game of the second, adopting a more aggressive stance on the baseline and dictating proceedings. After one rally in which he bullied his foe all over the court, Wawrinka placed a the ball in his mouth in frustration.
Nadal’s blazing forehand down the line drew prolonged gasps from the crowd at 4-1. He was now in full flow.
Wawrinka knew he had to break Nadal to stay in the second set to have any — small — chance of triumphing: Nadal was 11-1 in grand slam finals when taking the opener.
But it didn’t materialize and Wawrinka flung his racket to the court in disgust when he missed a forehand passing shot with Nadal stranded.
Nadal never relented in this first men’s final featuring two thirty-somethings at Roland Garros since 1969.
Wawrinka — with a seemingly smile of resignation on his face — implored the crowd to get behind him when he delicately sent a chipped backhand past Nadal in the fifth game of the third. He was broken a few seconds later to trail 4-1. Two games later the match was over — the Spaniard collapsing onto the clay in joy.
Nadal has broken his fair share of opponents on the clay, that’s for sure.
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