PARIS – He fooled us again, which in itself is quite an achievement at this stage of the game.
Perhaps Rafael Nadal really means business when he downplays his chances at Roland Garros and there was certainly no forgery in play when he limped through the final set of a preliminary round loss at the Italian Open last month, grimacing and special tired looking grinding and the chronic pain in his left foot.
Nadal indeed found himself in unfamiliar territory returning to his favorite turf, Roland Garros. Early in the tournament, he had very few clay-court games and no clay-court title this season. Novak Djokovic seemed to pick up speed again. Carlos Alcaraz, a young Spaniard, seemed to take off like a rocket.
But for Nadal, there is no tonic like Parisian Red Clay. And on Sunday, after working his way through the loaded top half of the draw, he was way too much, even with less than his best performance, for No. 8 seeded Casper Ruud in the French Open men’s final, who finished 6th : 3 won. 6-3, 6-0 in a game that lasted 2 hours and 18 minutes.
The victory secured Nadal his 14th men’s singles title at the tournament and extended a French Open record that looks more unbeatable with each spring.
He also extended his lead in the Majors three-way race with Djokovic and Roger Federer. Nadal now has a men’s record 22 Grand Slam singles titles, two more than Djokovic, whom Nadal defeated here in the quarterfinals, and Federer, who is still recovering from his last knee surgery at the age of 40.
Sunday’s triumph with Billie Jean King and King Felipe VI. of Spain made Nadal the oldest man to win the French Open at 36, surpassing his compatriot Andrés Gimeno who won the title in 1972 at the age of 34.
“I never believed that at the age of 36 I would be competitive again and play again in the final on the most important pitch of my career,” said Nadal. “It means a lot to me, means everything. It just takes a lot of energy to keep going.”
Nadal’s tone has been farewell lately: he has repeatedly hinted at the possibility of playing his last French Open. But after slamming the door on Ruud and then hugging him at the net on Sunday, Nadal made it clear that this would not be the tennis equivalent of a walk-off grand slam.
“I don’t know what may happen in the future but I will keep fighting to keep going,” he said as the sold-out crowd of 15,000, clearly aware of the speculation, roared their approval.
He certainly seemed ready for more against Ruud, gaining pace and precision as the game progressed. Nadal wasn’t at his best early on and was far from his best at times, losing serve in the third game with two double faults and an unforced forehand error from the rhythm to the center of the net. But Ruud also struggled to find his way, looking nervous and limited at crucial points in the opening set and then being outplayed at crucial points in the later stages after working through his nerves.
His only real boost came early in the second set when he broke Nadal’s serve again to go 3-1 up, but at 30-30 in the next game Ruud set up an inside-out forehand and felt maybe that this was an excellent performance required, just went too much and missed. Nadal broke him back on the next point and wouldn’t lose another game: reeling off 11 in a row and ending the win with a backhand down the line in the sunshine.
Nadal is in the midst of one of his most remarkable seasons, despite the chronic pain that left him so devastated in Rome and in need of intensive treatment in Paris.
After missing almost the entire second half of the 2021 season due to foot problems – he has an ailment known as Muller-Weiss Syndrome – he roared back to win the Australian Open and rallied to face Daniil Medvedev in a final with defeat five sets.
He started the season with 20 straight wins before losing to American Taylor Fritz in the final of the BNP Paribas Open in March, partly due to a new injury: a stress fracture in his ribs. That forced Nadal into another lengthy hiatus and missed most of the clay-court season before returning to Madrid last month.
He was beaten in the quarterfinals by Alcaraz and in the round of 16 in Rome by Denis Shapovalov. But Nadal arrived at Roland Garros with his longtime doctor, Angel Ruiz-Cotorro, who was able to help Nadal deal with the pain and a very rough draw.
Nadal had to defeat four of the top nine seeds to win the title: No.9 Felix Auger-Aliassime, No.1 Djokovic, No.3 Alexander Zverev and No.8 Ruud in what turned out to be the most one-sided of all those games .
Not only has Nadal won 14 French Open singles titles, he has also won all 14 singles finals he has played at Roland Garros.
So many records. So much enduring excellence, and Ruud, an affable 23-year-old Norwegian, certainly needed no reminder of his opponent’s performances as he stepped onto the Philippe Chatrier Court as the first Norwegian to play in a Grand Slam singles final.
Ruud, who broke into the top 10 last year, had two big role models as he emerged from a nation better known for excelling on snow than sand. There was his father Christian, who coached him and was a Tour player, charting at No. 39 in 1995. And there was Nadal with his extreme topspin forehand and hardwired combat readiness.
He began training regularly with his team at Nadal’s tennis academy in Mallorca, Spain, in 2018, even playing – and losing – training sets against Nadal.
He has also played golf with Nadal and thought he was looking forward to a more relaxed experience, only to discover that Nadal’s competitive streak wasn’t limited to the tennis court.
But Sunday was Ruud’s first chance to face Nadal on tour.
“Playing against Rafa in a Roland Garros final is probably the biggest challenge there is in the sport,” said Ruud.
That was before the final and on Sunday afternoon, after it was over quickly, Ruud made it clear in his second place speech that he hadn’t changed his mind.
“It’s not easy, I’m not the first victim,” Ruud told Nadal. “I know there have been many before.”
And not to be fooled again, given Nadal’s age and increasingly nostalgic mood, it will be interesting to see if Ruud will be the last.