There will be no changing of the guard in Paris this year. Rafael Nadal's royal reign at the French Open isn't over yet.
On Sunday at Roland Garros, Nadal took out his biggest rival Novak Djokovic 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 to win his ninth French Open title, his 14th major overall. As he stood on stage hugging his trophy after the victory, he was overcome with emotion. This win meant a lot for him.
While Nadal has dominated the French Open over the past decade, things were a bit more uncertain heading into Paris this year. Nadal had struggled early on in the clay season, falling in back-to-back quarterfinals in the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters and the Barcelona Open, both times to lower-ranked but dangerous Spaniards.
He went on to make the finals of his next two tournaments on clay, but he still wasn't as unstoppable as we're used to seeing him. In the final of the Mutua Madrid Open, Nadal was trailing Kei Nishikori by a set and a break before Nishikori's back injury swayed the outcome of the match. In the Rome Masters, Nadal fell to Djokovic in the final.
There were more uncertainties about Nadal than ever before heading into this French Open. After his semifinal thrashing of Andy Murray, Nadal talked to the press about the problems he was having earlier in the clay-court season:
[The first] few weeks with my forehand I was not able to create winners. I was not able to take advantage when I was hitting with my forehand. I was losing court. I was playing with more mistakes than usual. My position on court was not a good one to compete against good players.
I was playing with, you know, more nerves, more anxiety than usual, because was a little bit new feelings for me on clay that I was not able to find my real game on clay.
But as we've learned time and time again with Nadal, he is at his best when his back is against the wall and things are not going his way. On the men's tour, nobody is as disciplined, self-reflective and competitive as the Spaniard.
Nadal refused to be disheartened by his losses. Instead, he used them as fuel to keep working harder, focusing on the fact that he played better week by week as a positive boost heading into the major that he has owned for the past decade.
The world No. 1 looked as dominant as ever throughout the fortnight, even if he wasn't playing the best tennis of his career. He only dropped two sets all tournament, one against David Ferrer in the quarterfinals and one against Djokovic in the final. When Nadal finds the range on his forehand on the clay courts and decides to be aggressive, his subpar day is still better than anyone else's best.
Still, he did not start off playing well in the championship match. The first set-and-a-half was a nervy, error-filled affair with Djokovic finding the open court more often than Nadal. Late in the second set, it seemed like the match was firmly swinging the Serb's way.
But Nadal dug deep like he always does and started hitting his forehand with conviction and pushing Djokovic around a bit more. It never reached the quality level of some of their previous epics, but seeing Nadal and Djokovic battle their demons is still almost as intriguing as watching them battle their opponent's top tennis.
Djokovic was clearly not feeling his best on this day, and the match ended on a double fault by the world No. 2, but that didn't take away from how much this meant to Nadal. After his heartbreak during the Australian Open final, where his back injury kept him from competing hard and made him powerless to stop Stanislas Wawrinka, Nadal's confidence had wavered throughout the spring. He could have lost the No. 1 ranking to Djokovic if he lost in the final, but instead the Spaniard just proved his superiority yet again.
When Pete Sampras retired from tennis 12 years ago, it felt like his count of 14 major titles would stand as the best for some time. Of course, just seven years later, Federer caught him. Now, Federer sits atop the leaderboard at 17, but 28-year-old Nadal is tied for second place with Sampras.
Chris Chase of USA Today's For The Win looks at the obstacles surrounding Nadal's next big quest, which will be equaling (or passing) Federer's major tally:
Can Nadal get to Federer? It feels inevitable now, though it’s far from a certainty. While Nadal has won every French Open in the past four years, he’s only taken one of the other Slams—last year’s U.S. Open. His other four major titles came between 2008 and 2010. He’s lost at Wimbledon in the second and first rounds over the past two years, respectively. He was upset in this year’s Australian Open final. Injuries forced him to miss two majors in the past two years. At an old 28, is there enough in the tank?
As Chase mentions, catching Federer this late in his career is not going to be easy. Nadal is human, this much we know. He'll lose again and he'll lose often, and one day, he'll probably even lose at Roland Garros again. After all, it would seem cruel for Djokovic to not win this major at least once in his career.
But the most impressive thing about Nadal continues to be his resiliency. He doesn't let losses get him too down, instead using them as fuel for the fire. For this reason, doubting him in any way now seems like an exercise in futility.
For Nadal, there always seems to be one more gear to find and one more point to win. Somehow, his drive has not diminished with time.
Now that questions about his greatness have been answered once again, perhaps it's finally time to stop asking them. All that's left to do now is to sit back and admire the rest of his career, however long that may be.
The King of Clay is assured at least one more year atop the throne.
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