Nadal immortalised following ninth Roland Garros victory
Sitting down to type the words “Rafael Nadal has won his ninth title at Roland Garros in the past 10 years” is something quite surreal. But it is true.
The Spaniard achieved this feat on Sunday thanks to an emotional four-set victory over Novak Djokovic, a milestone that may never be surpassed. And as he continues to smash his own previously-set records at Roland Garros and move towards others set elsewhere in the game, Nadal is establishing himself as one of the more decorated players ever to have lived.
The statistics are stratospheric. Mind-boggling. Incroyable. Pick any gushing superlative – it is apt. His ninth Roland Garros title is the most ever at the tournament, let alone at any one Grand Slam event. His five straight titles in Paris is an all-time record and takes his winning streak at the event to 35 matches. By reaching the title match he was making his 20th major final appearance, and by winning it he claimed his 14th Grand Slam trophy, putting him equal with Pete Sampras at second on the all-time lists for both those achievements. His record at Roland Garros now stands at a sparkling 66-1.
“I was so strong. I really wanted to defeat him,” Nadal revealed after the match. “I suffered quite a lot, but I found solutions. When there were problems cropping up, I managed to find the solutions when the moments were very difficult. I succeeded. I managed to win the match and the tournament.”
Perhaps a Nadal victory at Roland Garros these days barely counts as news. It has become so commonplace that it is now expected, even assumed. But this year, he looked less likely to succeed than ever. Losses to David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro – longtime fodder for Nadal – in Monte Carlo and Barcelona respectively pointed to a player whose confidence was at a low ebb. Djokovic downed him in a barrage of winners in the Rome final. Even his run to the Masters title in Madrid failed to convince; he lost the first set of the final to Kei Nishikori before the Japanese player’s back gave way and he was forced to retire. Nadal thus arrived at Roland Garros having been beaten on clay more times in a single season than any year since 2004.
Yet Paris represents a home-away-from-home for the Spaniard. And as he stepped onto the famed terre battue, he looked assured from his very first stroke of the tournament. He dropped just 40 games en route to the final – his third lowest total ever. Most illuminating was his performance against his top 10 rivals; after dropping his only set before the final against David Ferrer in the quarters, he roared back to win the third and fourth sets 6-0 and 6-1. In the semi-finals, he eviscerated reigning Wimbledon champion Andy Murray, losing just six games.
Djokovic would always present a tougher battle. The victory in Rome meant the Serb had won their past four encounters, narrowing the career head-to-head to 19-22. But in the five-set Grand Slam matches that mean the most, Nadal again reigned supreme.
Just as he did in the semi-finals here last year, and at the 2013 US Open a few months later, Nadal proved a fraction faster, fitter, more powerful, more confident, and ultimately more hungry. He always seemed to know where Djokovic was going to place the ball and was on it like a flash, replying with a heftier blow that frequently left the world No.2 stranded – and frustrated. It made sense Nadal knew what patterns of play to expect, given the pair have played over 40 times. Significantly, Djokovic never seemed to have the same foresight today.
Time and time again the Serb was beaten by Nadal’s prodigious forehand, and as the match concluded, Nadal finished it with more winners and fewer errors. “I know to play against him. I need to play to my limit, I need to play aggressive. But is always the same thing, no? To play aggressive and to play those shots, you need to be confident, you need to feel the ball,” he explained. “I think in the second set that the dynamic of the match changed. I was able to play more aggressive. I did better things … It was very important for me to win that second set. Without that, I don't know if I have this trophy with me now.”
So what remains left to achieve in the illustrious career that is Rafael Nadal’s? He will head to Halle tomorrow and then Wimbledon in two weeks, hoping that his knees will hold up to the rigours of grass-court tennis at a “very important” Slam at the All England Club.
And yet despite having already enjoyed multiple successes in the French capital, the French Open remains his number one priority. “The other things, sure, are important … we will see when we finish my career how many Grand Slams I have or if I win four, three, or five in a row,” he said. “But always for me is the same. The most important thing is win Roland Garros. That's the most important thing.”