As Rafael Nadal buried himself for the fifth time into the dirt of Philippe Chatrier that he so cherishes, absorbing every possible particle of clay that he could after his most emotional and important Grand Slam victory, I was left wondering as to what will be the biggest take away from the year’s second major. Will it be about Roger Federer’s streak finally being broken, or will Robin Soderling’s continued success story at the major be more worthy of discussion? Did Thomas Berdych and Jurgen Melzer did enough to make themselves notice, or Novak Djokovic’s quarter final exit after he blew a two sets lead did enough to garner more attention?
Grand Slams are about winners, though, and the biggest take away from the tournament should belong to Rafael Nadal who has come one step closer to equal Bjorn Borg’s record of six French Open titles. But it will not be about the first major he won in nearly one and a half years, or how he regained his world No. 1 ranking after having failed to win a title for nearly 11 months.
This tournament will be special to the King of Clay not only for the extra-curricular reasons, but also with regards to his development as a player. It feels that it took him the seventh major to finally attain maturity as a tennis player having the potential to win majors in double digits.
For most of the two weeks at Roland Garros, Nadal did not seem comfortable at this place. He played, to put it bluntly, a bad first round match against an unknown opponent, and he himself admitted of the nervousness coming into his first match. His second match was only a marginal improvement as he served better (OK, improvement in serve is tremendous progress—ask Djokovic, Ana Ivanovic or Dinana Safina) as he was still spraying errors from both wings.
As he reached past the quarter final stage, there were serious doubts about his reclaim of the title as he faced off a tough encounter in Nicholas Almagro and the only time he was a break up against his compatriot was in the final game when he broke Almagro’s serve. Even though he called this the best match he had played so far, it was clear that his task would be cut out against his nemesis of 2009, Soderling, should he reach the finals. After all, Soderling had just upset Federer and he was much better than Almagro in every single aspect, be it the serve, ground strokes, consistency or mental toughness.
Even without dropping the set, one could never get a feeling that Rafael Nadal, the King of Clay, owned Roland Garros. He was just doing “enough” but would that enough be enough against a better and harder hitting opponent in the final? And this uncomfortable feeling was not about how he was plainly retrieving balls from the corners of the court compelling his opponent to hit one extra stroke and committing an error. No. This was always Nadal’s style ever since he bit the trophy for the first time since 2005. He looked puzzled even in his defense. In many matches, the unforced error count of Nadal was more than the number of winners he hit, something which was hardly associated with him till 2008. It seemed that hard, powerful, flat hitting strokes were finally an answer to the Nadal’s solid defense on clay.
All the doubts, however, were erased the moment he stepped into the court into the final. Nadal had gradually peaked his way into the tournament, and by the championship match of the tournament he was at his clay court best. Much has been said about Nadal’s defense and the way an opponent can be demoralized to see winners after winners being retrieved and returned perfectly back into the court, finally ending a misery through a backhand passing shot winner from Nadal on a perfectly good shot which normally would have been a winner against everyone else. And one cannot say enough about the way Nadal survived on Soderling’s cannon bombs forehands and backhands throughout the day. He won more than double the points won by Soderling once the rallies went over ten shots.
It was, however, Nadal’s offence that, even though overshadowed by his defense, stood out in the match. Serve has never been a strength of the Spaniard, and time-n-again he found himself in tricky positions of 15-30 or 30-40 or 15-40. And every time he came up with an ace or service winner to ease the pressure, or he would use his wide angled serve on Soderling’s backhand to set up a one-two punch. An overtly surprising statistic was displayed mid-way in the third set, when Nadal had won 40 points on rallies that lasted less than three strokes compared to Soderling’s 37. The final statistic also showed that Nadal matched the tournament’s highest ace hitter with seven aces each in the finals.
Yes, Nadal’s defense on clay can be broken under extreme circumstances. But what if it is combined with opportune aggression? Many thought that the match was a lot closer than the 6-4 6-2 6-4 score line suggested. I can argue that the match was a lot more one-sided what the scoreboard said. Part of the apprehension throughout the match—which made the score line tense—was Nadal’s questionable ability to hold his service games during the course of an entire set. But the way he served yesterday, there should have been none. He was 8-0 on the number of break points saved.
Rafa had shown his multi-dimensional game in the finals, built primarily on defense but backed very efficiently by offense. But considering the tournament as a whole, Nadal added a new dimension to his playing skills. He worked his way into form by overcoming a couple of red-hot opponents while surviving on his patchy form, only to peak dominantly in the finals. In other words, he perfected the art of “Winning Ugly.”
And this is what Rafa should take the most out of this tournament as it has set the course for him to win many more majors. Now he can grind “selectively” during the course of seven matches, reserving his best for the days when he needs it the most. For a player playing at his best is usually an infrequent occurrence.
Oh, and lest one forget. Making one’s hand heavier by wearing a $425,000 watch does not affect the way one plays. True, isn’t it?