One month ago, as the world prepared for Rafael Nadal to storm another clay season, the man himself was struggling. He was coming off another injury after a year of warring with his own body, and he seemed to have finally reached a breaking point.
The problem wasn’t the lingering physical effects of his ailments, but that the mental scar tissue enveloped his morale and sucked his fight dry. He felt like a boxer, he said, fielding an unending series of blows to the face, feeling dazed and dejected, just waiting for the next one to land.
Nadal began his clay season in Monte Carlo, but he wasn’t himself. His movement around the court was laboured, his serve faltered and his forehand landed short, constantly beckoning pressure. He was brutally punished for it in the semi-final, where Fabio Fognini embarrassed him 6-4 6-2.
Drowning in negativity, Nadal cursed the performance as one of the worst of his career on clay. A week later in Barcelona, Nadal retreated alone to his hotel room after a messy first-round win and wondered how he would go on: “One possibility [would] have been stop for a while and recover my body,” he said on Sunday. “And the other was [to] change drastically my attitude and my mentality to play the next couple of weeks.”
On Sunday, the decision Nadal made was clear. He defeated Dominic Thiem 6-3 5-7 6-1 6-1 to win his 12th Roland Garros and 18th overall slam title. The match itself reflected everything that Nadal is. The first seven games were frantic and desperate, perhaps the most intense start to a slam final in history. Thiem landed spectacular blows off both wings, chasing down certain winners and lacing his game with finesse.
But just as he gained the upper hand with the first break for *3-2, Nadal won the next four games in a row and captured the set. Later, when Thiem edged the second set, Nadal responded by winning 11 points in a row and losing only two games for the rest of the match.
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Nadal’s resilience underlined why he has been able to piece together such an absurd 93-2 record at Roland Garros. It is possible for elite players to match Nadal’s form, energy and conviction for small periods or even a full best-of-three match, but to do it across five long sets on Philippe Chatrier against a confident and healthy Nadal remains the closest thing to impossible in sport.
Alone in that hotel room in Barcelona in May, Nadal steadied himself by focusing on what he could control. He charged himself with remaining positive and displaying the right attitude. He lost again in the Barcelona semi-finals 6-4 6-3 to Thiem, but this time he stressed the high quality of the match and the encouragement he could take from it.
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Two weeks later he lost in the Madrid semi-finals to Stefanos Tsitsipas, a player he had violently dismantled in January at the Australian Open. The defeat meant it was the first time in his career that he had failed to win a title in the first three clay events of the year. He shrugged: “During all my life, I think I have taken the victories very naturally and with a lot of normality. With the losses I'll do the same.”
It wasn’t until Rome, Nadal’s final clay event before Roland Garros, that his sensations returned and he tore through the draw, beating Djokovic to win his 34th Masters 1000 title. It was a credit to the way he had navigated his doubts and learnt again how to move past his disappointments and to keep on working.
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Nadal is the greatest mental player the men’s game has seen, but even this characteristic of his can be overstated. People credit him with otherworldly self-belief. They say he fights for every point like it is his last. His logo carries the likeness of a bull. It may all be partially true, but his genius is also far simpler. Nadal is a realist and his greatest virtue is that he is reasonable.
He makes mistakes and he is wracked with doubts, but he accepts both. He was incessantly reminded that he was in the middle of by far the worst clay season of his career, but he simply stressed the abnormality of his prior achievements: “I think that it's more normal what is happening right now, that what happened in the last 14 years,” he said. In a sport where players lose every week and even emphatic wins are separated by a handful of points, the most difficult thing in the world is to be rational.
Like Nadal’s self-ultimatum, decisions have come to define the 2019 French Open and will continue to plot the future. In team sports, the lines between the decisions of managers, agents and players often blur. But in tennis the consequence of every decision is clear.
Seeking independence, Dominic Thiem emancipated himself from his coach of 15 years, Gunther Bresnik, and he has played spirited, varied tennis ever since.
Women’s champion Ashleigh Barty traced her triumph back to her decision to step away from the sport at 18 years old in 2014 after burnout and depression, leaving tennis to become a professional cricketer and only returning on her terms.
Roger Federer’s decision to play Roland Garros for the first time since 2015 means he will go to his favourite grass season with rhythm, form and confidence. There is something more intimate about seeing these athletes succeed and fail on their own convictions.
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Nadal’s 18th victory brings him to within two slams of Roger Federer’s haul of 20 and it ensures that the debate over the greatest of all time will roar on, louder and more obnoxious than ever before. Djokovic will surely add to his resumé too, while Federer is playing his best tennis in nearly two years.
They are not finished. In some ways it is exciting, but the incessant debates distract from the enormity of their achievements. In Rafael Nadal’s case this week, it was the sight of a legend questioning everything, looking minutes from knockout, but then steadying himself and destroying again.