Rafael Nadal of Spain crushed Norwegian Casper Ruud on Sunday to lift the French Open trophy for an incredible 14th time — he has not lost a final at the Roland Garros. The win also gave Nadal a record-extending 22nd Grand Slam title. A look at Nadal’s place in tennis history and his remarkable journey.
Comment: Why Nadal is the GOAT
Shyam A. Krishna, Senior Associate Editor
Is Rafael Nadal the greatest of all time (GOAT)? He’s got the numbers. With 22 men’s Grand Slam titles, the Spaniard has won two more than his nearest rivals for the mantle of the greatest player — Roger Federer of Switzerland and Novak Djokovic of Serbia.
Are statistics the true measure of greatness? No, definitely not. Nadal’s brilliance goes beyond data, although the numbers stack up well for him. Winner of 14 French Opens, Nadal has also won four US Opens, two Australian Opens and two Wimbledons. That makes him a complete player, having won on clay, grass and hard courts: a feat that eluded some of the best players in history, including Bjorn Borg of Sweden and Pete Sampras of the United States.
Nadal is a complete player. No arguments on that. Djokovic and Federer too have won the tennis majors on all surfaces, which makes them also complete players and contenders for the GOAT title. But their record pales in comparison. At 36, Nadal is the oldest French Open champion, and he seems capable of winning many more, although his incredible athleticism has waned.
To me, the most appealing Nadal trait is his never-say-die attitude. A Nadal match is never over until the last point is played. For, the Spaniard has won titles from seemingly lost positions.
Nadal is not my favourite player, simply because of his awkward playing style. A heavily-spun forehand that follows through and finishes over his head is an ungainly sight in tennis. His game is to hare down the court and return every shot with a blistering forehand or a crunching double-fisted backhand. Not much of a game plan, I thought, although he plays the drop more often these days. But it’s worked for Nadal. Well enough to win 92 ATP titles. Twenty-two majors too.
To win on Sunday, Nadal fought through the pain barrier. But then, that’s a recurring theme in the last two years. Painkillers may numb the pain in his foot, but he needs to perform at the highest level to win a Grand Slam. As each of his rivals knows, Nadal has the knack of raising his game by several notches in times of adversity. That’s the hallmark of a champion. A champion, who is the best in history.
Analysis: Numbers can’t capture Nadal’s singular greatness
John Feinstein, Washington Post
When Rafael Nadal first burst onto the tennis scene by winning the French Open in 2005, the consensus was that he was another in the long line of great clay court players, men who could dominate on the red surface of Roland Garros but were often vulnerable on faster surfaces.
Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander, truly great clay (and hard court) players, never won Wimbledon. On the flip side, Hall of Fame players like Pete Sampras, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg could never quite figure out the red clay.
Bjorn Borg, who won in Paris six times, also won Wimbledon five times — but never the US or Australian Open. Rod Laver won on grass and clay and no doubt would have on hard courts had majors been played on them during his career. Laver could have won playing on an ice-skating rink — or any other surface.
Sampras won 14 major titles — but never got to the final in Paris. Before Sampras came along, Roy Emerson held the record for men’s Grand Slam singles titles — at 12.
On Sunday, Nadal won one for the 14th time — in Paris. His record in French Open finals is now 14-0 after his crushing 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 victory over Casper Ruud. Ruud, who is 23, actually led 3-1 in the second set before Nadal simply took his game to another level, winning the final 11 games of the match. The Norwegian didn’t play poorly the first two sets, but he had no chance. Nadal winning in Paris on the tournament’s final Sunday is as absolute as summer rain in London. It is inevitable.
This time around, Nadal’s toughest match came in the quarter-finals, where he won a four-hour-plus classic over fellow all-time great Novak Djokovic. That match clearly should have been played in the final, but no one in tennis ever thinks. And so Nadal, who has missed time with injuries this year, was the No. 5 seed, because God forbid anyone should fail to follow the rankings.
Seeding Nadal No. 5 in Paris is roughly the same as telling Tiger Woods to go play the AAA Korn Ferry Tour — after he won his first Masters by 12 shots.
Nadal, in any case, long ago proved he was far more than a clay-court specialist. His victory Sunday was his 22nd Grand Slam title, putting him two in front of Djokovic and Roger Federer. If you held a final vote for greatest player of all time today, Nadal, who turned 36 on Friday, would have to be No. 1.
In a sport that has often lacked grace in its champions, Nadal is never anything but gracious in victory and defeat.
Statistics are overused nowadays, but a handful of Nadal’s numbers go beyond breathtaking. He is 112-3 at Roland Garros (what?), but he has also won eight majors off the red clay: two Australian Opens; two Wimbledons and four US. Opens. That’s as many majors as icons Connors, Andre Agassi and Lendl each won total, and one more than McEnroe.
What’s most fascinating about all this is that last fall, the title of greatest player ever had been more or less ceded to Djokovic. He had beaten Nadal on his way to winning in Paris in June and had gone on to win at Wimbledon in July, putting him in a three-way tie with Nadal and Federer with 20 major victories.
Federer turned 40 in August and had lost in the Wimbledon quarter finals to Hubert Hurkacz in straight sets — including 6-0 in the third. He then announced that he needed knee surgery, again, and hoped to play again in 2022. He still hasn’t played and, as McEnroe noted on the NBC telecast Sunday, there’s a good chance we will never see him again in a major championship.
After his semi-final loss to Djokovic at Roland Garros, Nadal had pulled out of both Wimbledon and the US. Open with recurring foot issues. Many wondered if his career might also be over.
Thus, Djokovic’s path to a 21st major victory and the record in major wins appeared clear. He was 34, healthy and going for a calendar Grand Slam in New York. His two great rivals were older and injured. But then Daniil Medvedev whipped him in the US Open final and his refusal to be vaccinated in the midst of the pandemic got him deported from Australia before the Australian Open.
Nadal then came from two sets down in the Australian final against Medvedev and became the first man to get to 21 major wins. Sunday, he got to 22 — and, apparently, at 36, is still counting. He’s now halfway to a calendar Grand Slam, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished on the men’s side since Laver did it in 1969 at a time when three of the four majors were still played on grass.
Djokovic, who has won at Wimbledon six times, will no doubt be poised to take him down there. And, although Nadal won one of the two greatest matches of all time (along with McEnroe-Borg in 1980) in the 2008 final at the All England Club, grass is still the toughest surface for him because he can’t wear people down the way he does in Paris — and to a lesser extent in New York and Melbourne — over shorter rallies and shorter matches.
That is a discussion for another day. Sunday was a day to revel in Nadal’s extraordinary career, his ability to come back time and again — whether from injury or from a point in which his opponent appeared to be in control. That’s the greatness of Nadal: You can get him down, but it is almost impossible to get him out.
At one point, late in Sunday’s match, as Nadal went through his meticulous pre-point routine — drying his hand and racket on a towel, walking to the precise point where he wanted to receive, wiping his brow and then, finally, standing in position to receive — NBC’s Dan Hicks commented on the consistency of that intricate routine.
“Once the point starts though,” Mary Carillo said, “what he does is very simple.”
Indeed it is: Hit the ball, then hit it again and again and again until the point is won. We’ve seen it now for 17 years and, even though his matches sometimes seem to go on forever, it never gets old.
What’s more, in a sport that has often lacked grace in its champions, Nadal is never anything but gracious in victory and defeat. He finished his victory speech Sunday by thanking the fans in French — which the crowd adored. He is as charming as he is brilliant.
One of the French Open’s sweetest traditions is to play the winner’s national anthem after he or she has been handed the trophy, in the case of the men’s singles winner, the “Coupe des Mousquetaires,” named for the four French Davis Cup stars of the 1920s.
Nadal has now heard his anthem played on a French Open Sunday 14 times. The emotion on his face made it clear that he still revels in every victory.
As should we all.