The creation of tennis history, or the biggest upset in tennis history – this much was inevitable at the men’s final at Roland Garros 2013. With Philippe Chatrier Court all-Spanish territory, it was a day to bear in mind the country’s national motto: “Plus Ultra” - literally, further beyond. In ancient times the declaration was intended to inspire the nation’s explorers to venture beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the rocky promontories flanking the Straits of Gibraltar) and onwards to the New World. With a sense of absolute inevitability, it was Rafael Nadal who steered the course into uncharted sporting waters. He crushed David Ferrer 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 in two hours and 16 minutes to become the first man ever to win eight titles at one Grand Slam. His fellow Spaniard, the oldest first-time Slam finalist in 40 years, was left struggling in the champion’s bow-wave. Like the rain which fell sporadically throughout much of the match, Ferrer could never produce sufficient rhythm to make a conclusive impact.
Nadal will not care that his supremacy made this far from a tennis classic, and nor should he. Watched by their country’s Crown Prince Felipe, the 27-year-old beat Ferrer for the 20th time in 24 meetings, to lift the 12th Grand Slam title of his career. It is one of life’s little ironies that Nadal will fall – yes, fall – from No.4 to No.5 when the new world rankings are released on Monday. More ironic still, they will declare him to be the second-best player in his nation, as it is Ferrer who will be ranked the world No.4.
Ah well. No one who saw this match, played in cold and heavy conditions, can doubt the truth. When Ferrer held his opening service to love, some feared this might be the high-point of his afternoon. It was not quite that bad, as he fought long and hard and had break points and even actual breaks of his own... but it never felt like being enough. Early on he was already chasing around the court as Nadal controlled the points, although he managed to trade breaks for 2-2. With drops of rain falling, Nadal passed him at the net to break again to lead 4-3. The 31-year-old stayed in it, and had hope when a Nadal lob dropped long, but a sensational forehand pulled back the chance. It was Nadal who broke again to seal the set in 40 minutes.
The two players wrestled for ten minutes at the start of the second before Nadal could hold, yet twice in a row he left Ferrer stranded on the baseline to break for 2-0. Umbrellas began to go up, so did Nadal’s winner count. Nonetheless, he required another 11 minutes to hold for 4-1, as Ferrer saw four break points go by before Nadal passed him at the net in a 29-stroke rally. The match paused as some noisy protesters were ejected high in the stands, and perhaps that was why Nadal could not serve out the set. But he recovered to break to love to seal it 6-2.
They traded breaks briefly at the start of the third, and once again the rain did its best to have its say. But like Ferrer, it could only keep Nadal in his chair for so long. Ferrer’s great trick, according to three-time Roland Garros champion Mats Wilander, is that he can make his opponents play badly... All except one, maybe. At the very first moment Nadal could, he grasped the match, he grasped the championship, he grasped history. It takes a strange courage to risk being on the wrong end of the greatest upset of all-time; but once again all those who came to slay Nadal were themselves vanquished instead. Plus Ultra indeed.