Tenth commandment

Tenth commandment

Nadal shall remain the ultimate champion on clay was the denouement at the French Open this year

Tenth commandment
Growing up as a prodigy on the Spanish island of Majorca, Rafael Nadal dreamed of winning just one French Open title. Now he has 10.

Nadal has always been a modest superstar, avoiding public displays of entitlement with the same assiduity that he employs arranging the beverage bottles on the court in front of his chair. But there could be no avoiding the encomiums or the obvious last  Sunday as Nadal, after a nervous start, crushed the suspense out of another French Open final against a strong opponent, routing Stan Wawrinka in two hours and five minutes.

“Rafa, this is one of the most beautiful exploits in the history of sport,” Fabrice Santoro, the former French star turned French Open interviewer, said as he approached Nadal on the court just after his quest for a 10th title — La Décima, in his native Spanish — became a reality.

It is no doubt a sporting achievement for the ages: No other men’s tennis player has won more than seven singles titles at the same Grand Slam event. And it is also surely time for a new favourite number for Nadal. Once a very promising soccer player, No 10 is what has kept bringing him joy and fulfillment this spring. He won a record 10th singles title on the clay in Monte Carlo and again in Barcelona.

That he managed it in Paris, too, came as a surprise to no one, certainly not the tournament organisers. After Nadal's victory, they unfurled a No 10 banner in the stands high above Court Philippe Chatrier and had a No 10 painted on the podium. Also at the ready was a highlight video that showed all 10 of his championship points dating to 2005.

“In 2005, I thought in 2017 I’d be fishing on my boat in Majorca,” Nadal said. “Back then, of course, I couldn’t think even for a second that this would ever happen to me.”

“I try my best in all events, that’s the real thing,” Nadal said. “But the feeling I have here is impossible to describe and difficult to compare to another place. For me the nerves, the adrenaline that I feel when I play in this court is impossible to compare to another feeling. Just for me, it’s the most important event in my career without a doubt.”

This was arguably Nadal’s most dominant performance at Roland Garros. It was the third time he won the event without dropping a set, but he lost only 35 games this time — the second fewest by an Open era men’s champion at a Grand Slam event in which all the matches were best-of-five sets. Bjorn Borg, the poker-faced Swede who was the best men’s player on clay in history until Nadal’s ascent, dropped only 32 games en route to the 1978 French Open title.

Sunday’s victory also ended a three-year drought of major titles for Nadal, who won his ninth French Open in 2014 but was then superseded by Novak Djokovic while being slowed by injuries and by dents to his confidence. Last year, he withdrew from Roland Garros after two rounds because of an inflamed tendon sheath in his left wrist.  That explains, in part, the tears that he shed in his chair after match point this time.

“This tournament is the most important of the year for me, and as you can imagine, when I get here, there are nerves and emotions and the tension is big,” Nadal said. “Also, I know that I have fewer years left to succeed here.”

This season he has undeniably returned to the fore: dropping weight and recovering all the sting in his fearsome forehand, although there is much more to this resurgence than that signature shot. Nadal’s serve was a strength on Sunday, when he faced — and saved — just one break point. His two-handed backhand was decisive, too. He finished with 27 winners and just 12 unforced errors.

Nadal is 31 now. A lesser competitor might have lost his edge long ago, but Nadal is still sliding after drop shots and throwing his body into topspin forehands with the gusto of a younger player.

Much has changed since his first victory at Roland Garros in 2005, the year of his first appearance in the tournament. Back then, Nadal was partial to sleeveless shirts and pirate pants, Court Philippe Chatrier had no aerial camera, and a fan could enter Roland Garros Stadium without being frisked by security officials.

The world is very different, but the men’s game has remained surprisingly resistant to change. Nadal’s career-long rival, Roger Federer, beat him to win the Australian Open in January at age 35. Now Nadal has won another French Open, closing the gap with Federer in the standings for career Grand Slam singles titles. Federer remains on top with 18. With Sunday’s win, his 15th, Nadal broke a tie with Pete Sampras for second place.

Two-thirds of Nadal’s major titles have come at Roland Garros, where he has an astounding 79-2 record. His only defeats came in the fourth round in 2009 against Robin Soderling and the quarterfinals in 2015 against Djokovic. He has never lost a French Open final, and his 10 victories in Paris make him the first player to win 10 Grand Slam singles titles at the same tournament in the Open era.

Martina Navratilova, the closest equivalent to Nadal, won nine at Wimbledon from 1978 to 1990. Margaret Court’s 11 titles at the Australian Open are the overall record, but seven of those came when it was an amateur event called the Australian Championships.

“It’s a lot of joy, but the work goes on,” Nadal said. “As I like to say, if I can do it, someone else can do it. I don’t like to think of myself as someone special. But you need the right ingredients, the right circumstances to win 10 French Opens.”

What makes Nadal’s 10 titles in Paris all the more remarkable is that they came in a top-heavy era in the men’s game. Federer and Djokovic are excellent on the clay and, if not for Nadal, surely would have won more than just one Roland Garros title apiece.

Nadal has beaten — and often beaten up on — great players, to maintain his dominance. But if that dominance continues, one thing is expected to be different. He has been coached since the beginning by his uncle, Toni Nadal, who gave him his first lesson in Majorca and has remained by his side throughout his career.

But Toni announced this year that he would stop traveling with his nephew on a full-time basis after this season.

“Without him, not one would be possible,” Nadal said of his uncle. Neither Nadal could have envisioned 10 titles when they made their first visit to Roland Garros together in 2005. They were both just delighted that the 19-year-old Nadal was in the event. Now, the tournament belongs a bit to both of them. For that, too, the French Tennis Federation was prepared. At the trophy ceremony, with Nadal already holding the Coupe des Mousquetaires, his uncle emerged bearing a second trophy: the replica that each victor gets to keep. It had a different inscription.

This one bore Nadal’s name and the phrase “La Décima.”

Not even a gifted child brimming with ambition would have expected to win 10 French Open singles titles. It would have sounded preposterous, but it looked so very logical on Sunday, when Nadal once again had an answer for everything his latest worthy opponent could ask. Now some gifted child hitting forehands and backhands, in Majorca or somewhere else, knows where to start dreaming.