Sports

The legendary Nadal proves his status again — and Swiatek emerges as the clay-court heir

PARIS — After two weeks of twists and turns, it all ended as intended. Iga Swiatek, the world’s best player, won the women’s singles after coming to Paris as the overwhelming favorite.

And then it was the legend’s turn on Sunday, as Rafael Nadal won his 14th French Open title and his 22nd Grand Slam.

Nadal was mentioned among Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz as an option to win the men’s singles, but should we ever have doubted him? By late afternoon on Sunday, there he was in the middle of his second home, holding La Coupe des Mousquetaires once again after beating Casper Ruud 6-3, 6-3, 6-0.

Nadal has had us scared at various moments this year. He is far more vulnerable than he used to be as his chronic left foot injury continues to derail him, but so far it has held together for Grand Slams. He adds the French Open title to the Australian Open he won back in January. All this after he was talking about the possibility of retiring at the turn of the year — and those thoughts continued through to France.

On the morning of the final there were reports and rumors that Nadal was set to announce his retirement later in the day. But the match finished with him shutting those down in front of an adoring crowd.

“I don’t know what’ll happen in the future,” Nadal said after he bested Ruud. “But I’ll keep fighting to keep on going.”

That fight saw him go to new lengths, using frequent injections to numb the pain in his foot. But it’s not a viable long-term solution. Next week, he will visit a doctor to undergo a procedure called radiofrequency nerve ablation, which he hopes will solve it. If that doesn’t work, Nadal will look to other options such as major surgery, or potentially even retiring.

“Let’s do [it] step by step, as I did all my tennis career,” he said Sunday. “Next step is that. After that, let’s see how it works. Hopefully, and I am always positive, [it] works more or less well, and can take out a little bit [of] the pain that I have. If that happens, let’s see if I am able to keep going for grass season.”

Nadal’s longevity means generations are overlapping. In the final he faced Ruud, the man who trains at Nadal’s academy in Mallorca. Ruud grew up idolizing the Spaniard, even making the pilgrimage to Roland Garros to watch Nadal’s 2013 final. So as Ruud developed his game, who better to learn from than the man himself? Nadal’s record here counts two ways: one as a role model, another as an imposing, intimidating on-court figure.

There are few noises like the roar that greets Nadal whenever he sets foot on Chatrier. This symbiotic connection he has with the clay has developed over the years, but it all adds to this feeling of invincibility. His ridiculous record of 112 wins to just three defeats at Roland Garros only adds to the aura.

“Hopefully one day I can tell my grandkids I played against Rafa on Philippe-Chatrier,” Ruud said Sunday.

Beyond Nadal’s triumph, this fortnight will be remembered for Alcaraz’s growing development and emergence as a future force, Alexander Zverev‘s retirement in the semifinal due to a sickening injury, and Djokovic’s return to the Grand Slam circuit after missing the Australian Open. There was also the farewell to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who lost in the first round to the eventual finalist Ruud.

Ruud made history as the first Norwegian man to make a Grand Slam singles final, and judging by the back-and-forth with Holger Rune after their quarterfinal, there’s a nice rivalry bubbling there.

But despite various threats to the seeming inevitability of the title, it all came back to Nadal. His ruthlessness on clay has resonated with his fellow 2022 champion Swiatek.

“I remember even last year when Rafa lost in semifinals, I met him [the] next day, coincidence, on the breakfast in the hotel, and I said to him that I was crying basically the whole evening because he lost,” Swiatek said. “He was sitting, and he was, like, ‘Oh, it’s just a tennis match, you know? You win; you lose. It’s normal.’ Not everybody can do that and just treat those big moments as another match, you know. That’s something special.”

She visited his academy in early May and was in awe of his trophy haul there. All 22 Grand Slams are represented in some way or another, along with his 79 tour titles and two Olympic gold medals. That gold-plated vision of dominance resonated with Swiatek, and she may be ready to take on his mantle as the foremost force on clay.

This was always Swiatek’s title to lose. She came to the French Open as the overwhelming favorite and she delivered, dropping only one set en route to her second Grand Slam title here in Paris in three years.

“Well, for me, I felt the baggage,” she said. “The hardest thing is like not letting yourself think about that, and overanalyze, and not letting yourself think about all the numbers and the odds, you know?”

But despite the distractions, the way she took down Coco Gauff in 1 hour, 8 minutes in the final was utterly ruthless — and typical of her run at the French Open.

Swiatek spoke early on about the pressures of being No. 1 and how she manages it, but she very rarely looked nervous out on court. There were brief glimpses in her fourth-round win over Qinwen Zheng where she had to shift her game plan to find answers, but even then she sorted it in her own unique way: She sang Dua Lipa to herself.

It’s all part of her unique nature: On the court she goes into her mode of unwavering competitiveness, while off-court she’s entertaining and amiable, not afraid to share some insight into her champion’s mindset. She has spoken of how much she loved the symmetry of the Palace of Versailles, how she breezed through Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” in a couple of days, and her five-song prematch playlist consisting of AC/DC, Pearl Jam, Gorillaz and Led Zeppelin.

But it all comes back to one overriding goal: She was asked earlier in the tournament about what her favorite part of tennis is. “For sure I like winning, that’s kind of obvious,” she replied.

What we’ve also seen over the past fortnight is the world No. 1 growing into her own skin, with impressive honesty. “I’m adjusting into that,” she said early on in the tournament.

She has navigated the mental challenges of that heavy moniker by bringing performance psychologist Daria Abramowicz with her, whom she thanked after winning the title. Swiatek was also open about why she turned down the chance to watch the Champions League final for fear of it throwing her off her rhythm. She said it’s something she might feel comfortable doing in the future, but not yet as she navigates life as the world’s best player.

Her triumph crowned an eventful couple of weeks for the women’s side of the draw. It started with seeds dropping out by the hour, and by the third round, Swiatek was the only one of the top 10 remaining.

She has brought order to the previous chaos of the women’s draw, where it was fiercely difficult to predict a surefire winner. Her run of 35 matches unbeaten is equal to Venus Williams‘ record, and moves her to two off Martina Hingis‘ streak of 37. For Swiatek, the crowning achievement from her fortnight at Roland Garros was overtaking Serena Williams‘ previous record of 34 wins in a row.

She now heads to Wimbledon as the clear favorite in the post-Ashleigh Barty era, with the likes of Gauff, Emma Raducanu, Petra Kvitova, Simona Halep and maybe Serena Williams all keen to chase her down.

“There is always something to improve, honestly,” Swiatek said. “I’m still not like a complete player, you know. Especially, I feel like even on the net I could be more solid.”

While Swiatek has confirmed she will head to SW19 looking to make it two Grand Slams in two, we wait to see whether Nadal plays there.

“It’s not about being the best [in] history,” Nadal said. “It’s not about the records. It’s about, I like what I do, you know. I like to play tennis. For me, what drives me to keep going is not about the competition to try to be the best or to win more Grand Slams than the others. … If I am still able to be happy playing tennis … [I’m] gonna keep going. If I am not able, [I’m] gonna do other stuff.”

Eventually that foot will let him down and this era of dominance on clay will end. We’ll be left with snapshots of his greatness immortalized in highlights, photos and memories.

He’ll always be royalty here. And, it seems, Swiatek may be ready to kick-start a new era of clay-court supremacy.

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