Thirteen. Thirteen times the champion at Roland Garros, the Grand Slam many players and critics view as the most demanding to win.
“It’s out of this world,” says Emilio Sanchez, the former Spanish No 1. “No one could imagine something like this.”
Scratching its collective head, the tennis world agrees. Yet only five years ago it was a very different story. Hard though it may be to believe, Rafael Nadal’s form going into Roland Garros—failing to win in Monte Carlo, Madrid or Rome—had left critics like John McEnroe, Chris Evert and Mary Jo Fernandez predicting that the King of Clay, already a nine-time winner in Paris, would fall from his throne. And he did. Novak Djokovic outplayed him in the quarterfinals, 7-5, 6-3, 6-1.
Earlier that week, Pierre Barthes, the former French No. 1 and perceptive coach, had sat on an empty Philippe-Chatrier Stadium watching Nadal practice and soon noticed a problem. “It’s the forehand, isn’t it?” Barthes said to Rafa’s lifelong coach Toni Nadal at the end of the session.
Uncle Toni nodded. “Yes, it’s the extension on the forehand that’s missing,” he said. “The extra flick at the moment of impact that gives him high rotation is gone. We’re working to get it back.”
It took a while. Mary Jo Fernandez had picked up on it during courtside commentary for ESPN. “The forehand is letting him down,” she said. “That’s his big shot. A lot of it has to do with confidence.”
And the confidence had gone. It was not the first time. When Sweden’s Robin Soderling produced one of the biggest upsets in Grand Slam history in 2009 by beating Nadal in the fourth round, Rafa’s whole world had been turned upside down by his parent’s divorce. That was an emotional problem. And there was always the physical battle that stemmed from foot problems which, in turn, affected his knees. It was this that led to McEnroe and others pondering how long Nadal could last. “He has such a physical game,” McEnroe said. “How much further can those legs carry him?”
The next year was a disaster, too, with Nadal being forced to withdraw at the third round stage in Paris not, as one might have expected with a knee problem, but with a wrist injury that the doctor warned could break tendons if he kept on twisting it in search of top spin. So much for trying to rediscover the extended flick. His career was in danger.
But dealing with adversity with courage and determination is always the hallmark of the greatest champions and Nadal’s response was nothing short of heroic. In 2017, he reached the final of the Australian Open, losing after leading Roger Federer 3-1 in the fifth set. He climbed back onto his throne at Roland Garros beating Stan Wawrinka in the final before adding the US Open for good measure. And quite apart from being imperious at Roland Garros ever since, he added another US Open crown last year.
From being not as good as he was and almost written off in 2015, he is, according to Emilio Sanchez “a better all-round player now.” Sanchez, who with his former doubles partner Sergio Casal, runs the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Naples, Fla, sees a big improvement in the serve; much more security on the volley, better use of the drop shot.
“But it is not surprising,” says Sanchez. “He is a humble champion, always ready to listen to good advice.”
Sanchez had first-hand experience of this when he became Spain’s Davis Cup captain in 2006. “I was a little bit worried about how to handle advice during matches,” Emilio recalled when we spoke this week.
“I mean this guy had already won Roland Garros twice and was so much better than I had ever been. But he said, “Emilio, I don’t always know what is happening out there. I can get afraid and angry. But you, sitting in the chair can see what is happening much better than me. So tell me what to do and I will do it.”
So, as we try to understand the character of a man who has achieved things beyond imagining, one finds a gentle soul who, according to his wife is a little afraid of the dark but one who is the fiercest competitor on court, treating every point as if his life depended on it. There is also another aspect to his success that the former ATP physio Bill Norris noticed through all the years he worked on those feet and knees and wrists.
“Rafa never let the injuries become his focus,” says Norris. “He never dwelt on the pain. He never allowed it to interfere with the job of winning matches. Unlike a lot of players, he was able to put it out of his mind on court.”
The pieces fit—the fierce competitive spirit, the ability to handle pain; the sensitivity, the sportsmanship and the awareness of others. “If you ask me how I am feeling or course I am happy,” Nadal said in his hour of triumph. “On the other hand, not as happy as usual because the situation is tough for most of the people around the world.”
From initial concern about the autumn cold and the weight of the balls to adding yet another layer of extraordinary triumph, Nadal brought down the curtain on this uniquely staged Roland Garros in the right spirit, setting the perfect example for the delightful surprise that emerged from the women’s field. Statistically, 19-year-old Iga Swiatek had an even more successful Championships because, incredibly, she did not allow anyone to take more than four games off her in a set.
But success, it seems, will sit easily on her shoulders. The first Polish player ever to win a Grand Slam tweeted the 13-time men’s champion afterwards: “Congratulations, Rafa Nadal. It’s amazing to kind of share this experience with you. Am I even allowed to say this?”
Yes, Iga, Rafa won’t mind at all. Just follow his lead and you will be fine.