It was all pretty straightforward in the end. Rafael Nadal arrived in Paris widely expected to capture an incredible tenth French Open title, but for this year’s Roland Garros win to be his most emphatic yet was perhaps not expected by the masses. Rafa came into the tournament in an impressive form, having claimed his tenth title in Monte-Carlo, his tenth title in Barcelona, and a fifth title in Madrid. The Spaniard was all set to make it a third ‘La Decima’ of the season in Paris. But despite his domination on the clay courts of Europe earlier this year, the chances of him capping off his clay court season with the title at Roland Garros did not perhaps feel like as much of a certainty as it has done in the past.
Rafa was a clear favorite to win the title in Paris, but at the same time the tournament did have a bit of an unpredictable feel to it. This can be attributed in part to the events that unfolded in Rome a couple of weeks before the start of the second Grand Slam of the year. After conquering all before him in Monte-Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid, Nadal ran into an inspired Dominic Thiem in Rome whose brilliant display was enough to see him avenge his final losses in Madrid and Barcelona to the great Spaniard. Everything came together perfectly for Thiem with his impressive shot making ability being on full show and it proving enough to end Rafa’s 17-match win streak. Thiem would then go on to be crushed by Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals just a day later, with the Austrian being limited to just one game.
Djokovic was denied another title in Rome by Alexander Zverev but despite a poor performance in the final it looked like the Serb had set himself up nicely to put up a stern defence of his French Open title after his flawless display against Thiem. Even though Rafa got the better of Novak in Madrid this year, Djokovic had won their previous seven meetings, so if he could find the kind of form he showed against Thiem at Rome you tended to think he would believe he could beat Rafa if they met at Roland Garros. Nadal was admittedly off his best against Thiem and Thiem was admittedly off his best against Novak, with Rafa being a bit jaded after putting in a huge effort over the previous month or so and Thiem definitely lacking the mental and physical energy that was required to compete with a Novak playing near his best. So it wasn’t as though these two results changed things massively heading into the French but you felt as though Rafa might have his work cut out for him at Roland Garros if he was to come up against Thiem or Djokovic, or both.
As it was, Rafa did not have to deal with Novak. He was taken care of in spectacular fashion by Dominic Thiem in the quarter-finals. Djokovic has had his issues with finding the right mentality in matches over the past twelve months but after a dominant win over Thiem a few weeks before and with Andre Agassi having been helping him out, on top of the fact he played some good tennis in his fourth round win over Ramos-Vinolas, you felt as though Novak might be ready to put his mental frailties behind him for good at this point. Quite the opposite happened.
The 12-time grand slam champion reached a new low in the quarter-final. There have been disappointing performances from Djokovic in the past year but none quite as disappointing as this one. After losing the first set-a set he probably should have won-it was a sad, extraordinary collapse, the strange thing about it being that Djokovic fading like he did was not actually too much of a surprise in the end. Yes, you suspected that he had turned a corner and would be able to up his game when it mattered against Thiem, but then again you thought the same after his win in Rome against the Austrian and then he went on to produce a performance full of self-doubt in the Rome final against Zverev.
One of the keys to winning Grand Slams is of course to be able to up your game in the latter stages of the tournament against tougher opposition, something that came incredibly naturally to Djokovic for a long time. Think back to the 2016 Australian Open. He scraped through his fourth round meeting with Gilles Simon in five sets, making 100 unforced errors along the way. He hardly missed in his next three matches as he produced near-perfect tennis against three top ten players en route to his sixth Australian Open crown. Novak was able to flick the switch and raise his level as was necessary if he was going to beat three of the best players in the world. But Djokovic was only able to do that with such ease because he had come into the tournament high on confidence after winning matches convincingly on a regular basis in the months beforehand. The same was not true coming into this year’s French Open.
Djokovic had labored to a lot of his wins in the three masters events held on clay prior to the French Open, and add in an emphatic loss to Rafa in Madrid as well as an unexpected straight sets defeat to Sascha Zverev in Rome, you’ve got a Djokovic who is not convinced in his ability to consistently produce the level of tennis required to beat world-class players. One dominant win over Thiem in Rome does not get him completely back on track. The doubt is not completely erased and you could see that against Schwartzman and then against Thiem at the French Open. Djokovic was completely unable to raise his level accordingly in his quarter-final defeat. Just as worrying perhaps as the final set capitulation was the way he faltered at 4-2 up and serving in the first set. He’s in control against an opponent he has beaten comfortably in all of their previous meetings, and he throws in a couple of double-faults and hands the game over to Thiem without the Austrian having to work for it at all.
Djokovic is getting tight so frequently as the negative thoughts are weighing him down regardless of the scoreline and situation in the match. Back when he was at the peak of his powers he might have occasionally suffered from a brief loss of conviction during a match but for the most part there would be no chance of negative thoughts surfacing and his confidence deserting him. Right now you’re almost expecting his confidence to desert him and in that Thiem match it looked like Novak was expecting the same, which is a horrible mentality to have but one Novak can’t seem to shake off at the moment.
So we did not get to see Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic do battle once more in the French Open semi-finals, and were instead treated to a fourth meeting of the year on clay between Nadal and Dominic Thiem. Rafa was a heavy favourite but after that Rome match and the confidence Thiem would have gained from beating Djokovic you felt Rafa might be pushed hard. But Thiem came up against a completely different animal to the one he faced in Rome and Rafa won easily, dropping only seven games on his way to a straight sets win. He was able to raise his game and the result was another easy win. Nadal was able to elevate his game again in the final against Stan Wawrinka and Stan could not conjure up the sort of magic he did in the 2015 final against Djokovic. You feel that both Thiem and Stan could have played better-the occasion seemed to get to Thiem a bit and Stan struggled to settle as well-but at the same time Nadal did not let either of them get a proper foothold in the match, his ferocious intensity and consistent brilliance point after point leaving both of them stunned.
With the semi-final and final win Nadal extended his unblemished record against opponents with a single-handed backhand at Roland Garros to 27-0. While Thiem and Stan are quality players having a one-handed backhand worked against them. Too often was Nadal able to unleash his forehand into the backhand corner of both Thiem and Wawrinka with it’s high kicking spin making it very awkward to deal with for single-hander. As a result there were numerous instances where Nadal took control of the rally after pushing them both deep into their backhand corner, forcing a short backhand reply and from there it’s easy pickings for Rafa. Despite them having considerable firepower, Rafa constructing the points so masterfully meant that Thiem and Stan struggled to work themselves into positions where they could really hurt Rafa.
Nadal laid out the main reasons behind his form this year in an interview for Tennis Channel on the middle Saturday of the French Open. He talked about how in November and December of last year he was able to practice without any injury or pain. He points out that getting in the right amount of practice was a crucial factor, with him being able to do as much as he wanted unlike the previous couple of years where injury had made it difficult, and that making all the difference in 2017.
Nadal paid tribute to the influence of Carlos Moya as well, with Moya being responsible in particular for Nadal hitting his second serve harder this year. The first serve has improved too, with Rafa landing 70% of first serves this year. There’s extra venom in his first delivery as well so he’s getting more free points than he used to, and if that wasn’t enough his backhand is rock solid at the moment. There’s no vulnerability there at all right now- you just can’t hurt him on that side like you maybe could in the past. And like the serve there was an extra bit of power behind both his backhand and his forehand in Paris this year, with the his main weapon the forehand looking better than ever perhaps and as you would expect doing most of the damage over the two weeks in the French capital.
On top of all of this at 31 years of age his movement was impeccable over the course of the two weeks. Whenever Stan did get a chance to unleash in the final Rafa’s supreme court coverage and retrieval abilities nullified most of what Wawrinka was able to throw at him. As Nadal alluded to him being healthy and able to practice how he has wanted to meant that his game was in perfect shape for the French Open and the stats, the dominance, the loss of no sets and just 35 games en route to the title, show this.
So all in all with Rafa playing as well as he was only a miraculous performance could have denied him ‘La Decima’. That performance might have been delivered by Novak Djokovic if Novak had come to Roland Garros and played at a similar level to how he was playing for the first half of 2016. That version of Djokovic facing off against Rafa in Paris this year would have been quite something but as it was Djokovic was not even good enough this year to set up a meeting with Rafa. Nadal emerging victorious did not perhaps feel as inevitable as it has done before because of the possibility of Novak doing this, but ultimately no one was even close to the level required to beat Rafa.
As far as Novak is concerned a big shift in mentality is needed if he’s going to be a serious contender at Wimbledon next month. And as far as Nadal’s Wimbledon hopes are concerned it all depends on how his knees hold up on the grass. He says if they don’t respond well to the surface it will be almost impossible for him to win a third Wimbledon title, but if they do he will have a decent chance and on current form you would tend to agree with him, although it is hard to look past Roger Federer after the way this year has gone for the Swiss maestro. Considering how he has dominated Rafa this year and how he loves the grass Federer would be a big favourite if him and Nadal were to meet.
Right now though it’s probably fair to say that his knees and Federer’s grass court prowess won’t be playing on Rafa’s mind too much after getting his hands on a Grand Slam for the first time in three years, the one he cherishes more than any other. Right now Rafa is fishing and playing golf in Mallorca as he takes some well-earned rest. Quite a few people are starting to think calling Rafael Nadal ‘The God of Clay’ would now be more suitable than calling him ‘The King of Clay’, and after perhaps his most emphatic win yet at Roland Garros and an outrageous tenth French Open title, it’s hard to disagree.