For two weeks at the French Open, Rafael Nadal looked unbeatable, his mastery of clay confirmed again. Yet, as Nadal climbed into the stands on Monday for a raucous celebration, the clay-court season ended, so had Nadal’s sizeable edge over his opposition.
Ninety minutes after Nadal secured his record seventh French Open championship, one more than Bjorn Borg, he was already looking forward. He had a flight to catch to Germany on Tuesday and a practice scheduled for the afternoon.
It seemed as if he could sense the landscape shifting, from red to green to blue. As Nadal heads into the grasscourt season and the hardcourt one beyond that, it would be foolish to think he will not contend for a title in every tournament. But he must also contend with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer and others under conditions that are more favourable to them.
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”I won four titles already this year in my favourite court. That’s clay,” Nadal said, as if his audience needed a reminder. ”I don’t have that chance to play in my favourite court the rest of the season.”
Last year, Nadal won at Roland Garros, dropped to the clay, held the trophy and headed off into the rest of the season. He did not win another tournament. It’s not that he played poorly. He still made the final at Wimbledon and at the US Open, losing to Djokovic in both.
The questions now, since Nadal’s triumph at the French is the closest thing in tennis to a given, is whether he is playing at a level higher than last year and whether that will carry over as the season chugs along.
His rivalry with Djokovic should be central to the narrative of the rest of the season, although Federer remains a threat. Nadal has played in the past five grand slam finals but lost three of them to Djokovic and won only at the French, twice.
”It’s not possible to be perfect every time. I am going to try to keep having chances to win, produce chances to win. I produced a lot of chances to win last year, but I lost almost every one.”
That was why Monday was so important, and less for the record at Roland Garros and more for Nadal’s own psyche. When rain delayed the final overnight, Nadal later admitted he felt anxious, read the same comic book three times before he fell asleep. In his news conference, Nadal called his latest contest with Djokovic a ”very complex final”. As he listened to Spain’s national anthem, he thought about what it felt like to lose the final of three consecutive grand slams, about how, as he gets older, ”you give more value to these precious moments”.
Fear had always driven him, he said; his mental makeup – not the topspin forehand, the poetic movement – central to his clay success.
But there is another side to that, and it seemed evident at the US and Australian Open that Djokovic had dented Nadal’s confidence.
As he held the silver French Open trophy, Nadal read the names of the champions who came before. He looked as assured as ever. And in his rivalry with Djokovic, where matches are won or lost by the slimmest margins, that last sliver of confidence can make the difference.
He even sounded different. ”I can’t deny this was probably my best season on clay.” Downstairs, his uncle and coach, Toni Nadal, said his nephew was unlucky to be born in the same era as Federer and Djokovic. The three of them have won 28 of the past 29 grand slam titles.
For years, Nadal staged epic showdowns with Federer, the same as he does now with Djokovic. He has 11 grand slam singles titles to show for it, but Toni Nadal seemed to say that in another era, his nephew would have won far more.
Near the end of his news conference, Nadal was asked if he knew that Borg retired at 26, the age he turned last week.
He shook his head, took questions in Spanish, then left the red clay upon which he has lost only once. ”Is impossible to predict the future, no?” he said.
source by , SMH