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French Open: How Rafael Nadal defended his kingdom

The French Open was all about Nadal, but it also marked the rise of a new star, Iga Świątek, and other talented youngsters

Rafael Nadal with the French Open trophy.
Rafael Nadal with the French Open trophy. (Reuters)

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Some things never get old. Like Rafael Nadal at French Open. For the past 17 years, Nadal has been the gold standard at the clay-court Grand Slam. And this year, at the age of 36, he proved his mastery of the surface all over again with some gutsy, relentless tennis. On the final Sunday, the French Open, like it has so many years in the past, finished on a sun-kissed Parisian evening, with Nadal hoisting the Coupe des Mousquetaires in the centre of the dustbowl called Court Phillippe-Chatrier.

The final was a blowout, with Nadal putting on a clinic for his Rafa Nadal Academy student Casper Ruud. He defeated the first-time finalist 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 in two hours and 18 minutes to reclaim his French Open crown for the first time since 2020. It was Nadal’s 14th French Open triumph, taking his overall Majors tally to 22—a clear lead over his closest rivals Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. It is also for the first time in Nadal’s career that he has won the first two Grand Slams of the season, bringing to life the possibility of a calendar Slam.

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“I never believed I would be here at 36, being competitive again, playing in the most important court of my career one more time in a final,” said Nadal, addressing the crowd from a temporary red-brick podium. “I don't know what can happen in the future, but I'm going to keep fighting to try to keep going.”

This year had been rougher than many. After a stunning 20-0 winning start to the season, Nadal suffered a stress fracture in his ribs. A foot injury, which had brought his 2021 season to an early end, also flared up at the Rome Masters—a week before the French Open. From the third round onwards, he played with a numb right foot. He publicly contemplated retirement. But Nadal never stopped fighting, nor did he stop believing that he could rule this court once again. He defeated four top-10 opponents, including World No. 1 Djokovic in the quarter-finals, to script another chapter of resilience. He's now at 112 wins and 3 losses at the French Open, the most dominant player ever at a tennis tournament. Possibly even in sport.

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Iga Świątek celebrates with her French Open trophy.
Iga Świątek celebrates with her French Open trophy. (Reuters)

Young guns make a mark

If Nadal’s triumph seemed like the culmination of all the effort and struggle, women’s champion Iga Świątek’s stunning run felt like the beginning of the new era. A Nadal fan herself, Świątek completely dominated the women’s field, dropping just one set on the way to her second French Open title. The Pole, who celebrated her 21st birthday during the French Open fortnight, defeated Coco Gauff 6-1, 6-3 in the final to extend her winning streak to 35. With this, Świątek has equalled Venus Williams’ unbeaten run of 35 in 2000. It’s also better than Serena Williams’ run in 2013.

After Ashleigh Barty retired from the game in March, Świątek picked up the World No. 1 baton. Reluctantly at first, but she has run away with it, and has taken the women’s game to a new high. Świątek hadn’t lost a match since February, and came into the French Open as the overwhelming favourite. And rather than being weighed down by the expectation, she stepped up, up and away and left the rest of the field behind.

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In the business end of the French Open, Świątek dropped only 12 games—never more than three per set. Still only 21, Świątek’s self-belief has reflected in her shot-making. She had announced herself by winning the 2020 French Open, and is now so good on clay that she never had to engage in a slugfest, and sailed through almost serenely. She can hit through the ball off both wings, and has possibly the most explosive forehand in the women’s game.

Even though Coco Gauff made a huge jump herself by reaching her first major singles final, and made the doubles final as well, she ultimately didn’t have the weapons to stop the Świątek charge. The women’s final went down as the youngest in French Open history in 25 years. With a combined age of 39 (Świątek 21, Gauff 18) it was the youngest since a 19-year-old Iva Majoli defeated a 16-year-old Martina Hingis in 1997.

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Carlos Alcaraz in action at the French Open.
Carlos Alcaraz in action at the French Open. (AFP)

It was in keeping with the big strides made by younger players at the tournament. In the women’s draw, three players who are 21-and-under—Świątek, Gauff and Leylah Fernandez—made the quarter-finals. Meanwhile, Carlos Alcaraz and Holger Rune—both 19—featured in a Grand Slam men’s quarter-finals for the first time since Hendrik Dreekmann and Andrei Medvedev at the 1994 French Open. Making his French Open main draw debut, Rune knocked out Denis Shapovalov and last year’s finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas on his way to the final eight.

Considering the hype surrounding him before the tournament began, a quarter-final finish for Alcaraz may sound disappointing. But in his five matches, the Spanish teen played with a sense of adventure that is usually the preserve of special players. He fought back match points against Albert Ramos-Vinolas in the second round and almost pulled a rabbit out of the hat against Alexander Zverev in the quarter-finals. Alcaraz undoubtedly brought the flash, but he didn’t have the solidity, yet, to go all the way.

King of the court

In that regard, Alcaraz could learn a thing or two from señor Nadal. When the going got tough, Nadal focused on getting his basics right. Much like a football team passing the ball back to defence to launch a new plan of attack, like his beloved Real Madrid, the Spaniard would retreat deep into the court. He made his defence impregnable, and used his foot-speed to chip away at his opponent’s belief with every swipe at the ball. Whoever was at the other side of the net—and he had some worthy challengers in Felix Auger-Aliassime, Djokovic and Zverev—Nadal forced them play his game. It was clay court chess: Anticipation, check; movement, check; shot selection, check; shot execution, check.

It must be said, that this year Nadal wasn’t at his smoothest, or most dominant. But every time he got into a jam, Nadal seemed to will his way out of it. He chased the ball like there was no tomorrow, and found his signature jaw-dropping winners from a remote corner of the court when he needed them. In the big moments he was vintage Nadal, in mentality and physicality. No one has matched up to that in almost two decades, and no one could this time either.

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What’s remarkable is that Nadal seemed just as hungry as he was at 19. This year, with the foot injury threatening to derail his career, there was an added sense of urgency. “My worst moment in this tournament was after my second-round match against (Corentin) Moutet,” he said. “I couldn't walk anymore. I had to have my foot anesthetized to be able to keep going. A special thanks to my doctor."

Before his quarter-final clash against Djokovic, the man who had beaten him in last year’s semi-final, he wondered if he would be playing his final match at Roland Garros. This made the notoriously rowdy French crowd get behind him like never before. And Nadal acknowledged their support, in French, after every single match. For the first time, it seemed like the Spaniard was the emotional favourite.

His audience, their hero.

Buoyed by the support, Nadal pushed all the way to another title triumph. Seventeen years after his first. The body has taken a considerable beating, hair is visibly thinning, experience has etched lines on his face, but, at the French Open, Nadal was once again the last man standing. Some things never change.

Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.

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