PARTAB RAMCHAND | 14 JUNE, 2019
He Is Now The Emperor Of Clay
No longer the King of clay; He is now the Emperor of clay.
“We play tennis. He plays something else’’ an exasperated opponent once exclaimed after being outplayed by Bjorn Borg at the height of the peerless Swede’s career in the 70s and early 80s when he won five consecutive Wimbledons and six French Open crowns. Three times in a row did Borg win the French and Wimbledon titles in 1978, 1979 and 1980 narrowly missing the feat in 1981 when he lost to John McEnroe in the Wimbledon final after winning his sixth title at Roland Garros a truly phenomenal feat considering the vast change in the surfaces.
Opponents frustrated time and again by the genius of Rafael Nadal on clay courts could well say the same thing. Here is a man who has now won the French Open title 12 times. No player has won any single Grand Slam title that many times. Of course unlike Borg who never won the Australian Open in which he hardly participated and the US Open where he was runner-up four times Nadal has won all the four Grand Slams and with 18 such titles he is snapping at the heels of Roger Federer who has a record 20.
The latest triumph is a tribute to Nadal’s fighting qualities for which he is well known. He didn’t have the best start to the clay court season being beaten in the semifinals at Monte Carlo, the Barcelona Open and the Madrid Open. But clawing his way back on his favourite surface he returned to his winning ways at the Italian Open defending his title by defeating world no 1 Novak Djokovic in the final. This put him in a confident frame of mind for the French Open where he brooked no opposition.
The manner in which Nadal outplayed Roger Federer in the semifinal handing him one of his worst defeats in a Grand Slam was straight out of the fiction books and this was followed by a victory over Dominic Thiem of Austria in the title clash. Theim along with Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece are the two fast rising players on the ATP circuit. But for the second successive year Thiem had to finish runner-up to Nadal, undoubtedly the greatest clay court player of all time. Indeed no longer can the 33-year-old Spaniard by called as the King of clay; He is now the Emperor of clay.
Indeed the French Open was all about Nadal. For some time now tennis fans have wondered when his injury prone body would break down for good, when his unbelievable run at Roland Garros would end and when some new star would emerge displaying the skill, strength and stamina to end Nadal’s reign. That is bound to happen but not right now. Indeed from all accounts Nadal himself was a bit anxious as the clay court season commenced. He missed the end of last season with a bad right knee, required ankle surgery during the off season and then pulled out of a match in March because the knee flared up again. The health concerns which for long had been part of Nadal’s career were piling up. And yet at the press conference after the French Open triumph on Sunday Nadal was able to smile and say ``Too many issues these last 18 months so that makes these last few weeks very, very special.’’
Those tennis fans who keep thinking that Nadal cannot keep coming back and cannot keep adding to his resume need a re-think. For Nadal will do whatever it takes to not only stay where he is but also to get better. He is constantly putting in work to adjust a stroke or an element of strategy. For example Nadal has long been thought of as the ultimate baseliner someone who will get to every ball and get it back over the net – frequently for a winner from an impossible angle. And yet this year he showed a less appreciated aspect of his game by coming to the net more often even on the slow surface and volleying impeccably.
Nadal’s coach Carlos Moya the 1998 French Open champion summed up his approach best. `He has an unbelievable attitude during the bad moments and that’s what made him a champion. Hats off to what he has done this month and a half because it is easy to play well when all the things are working well. But after what he has been through he has shown what a intense competitor he is and mentally he is a genius,’’
In the meantime while Thiem and Tsitsipas continue to win ATP Tour tournaments and rise in the rankings they are unable to challenge the Big Three when it comes to Grand Slam titles. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic between them have won the last ten Grand Slams starting with the Australian Open in January 2017 which Federer won. Djokovic despite his semifinal loss to Thiem at Roland Garros is way ahead of the second ranked Nadal and must still be the favourite for Wimbledon followed by Nadal and Federer. The challengers may have to wait a while for their first Grand Slam title.