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How Rafael Nadal outplayed everyone at the French Open

Rafael Nadal came up against Novak Djokovic, Alexander Zverev and the talented youngster Casper Ruud. He bested them all 

Rafael Nadal in action at the French Open final.
Rafael Nadal in action at the French Open final. (Reuters)

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Casper Ruud, the first Norwegian to enter a Grand Slam final, had broken into the top 10 in men’s singles tennis at the end of last year. He had come into the 2022 French Open with seven clay court titles under his belt, his reputation as a giant killer bolstered by a win over World No. 3 Alexander Zverev in Miami. And yet he underplayed his chances against 36-year-old Rafael Nadal, who had missed most of this year’s clay court season with a stress fracture in the ribs and a relapse of his chronic foot injury. “To play Rafa in a Roland Garros final is probably the greatest challenge there is in this sport,” said the 23-year-old Norwegian, who trains at the Rafa Nadal Academy in Mallorca, Spain.

If he wanted to lull Nadal into a false sense of security to be less ruthless than usual in a French Open final, it seemed to work at the outset. Nadal swiftly took a 2-0 lead, but then he made two double faults and muffed an easy forehand winner to drop his service game and allow Ruud back into the match. Nadal responded as he always does when he’s stung. He broke Ruud again immediately and then closed out the set. But he was still playing below par as he trailed 1-3 in the second set.

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That was the moment when a switch seemed to be flipped on in the Spaniard’s mind. He played 11 flawless games to win the second set 6-3, and the third set 6-0 for his historic 14th French Open title and 22nd Grand Slam. In that 11-game stretch, Nadal was in such supreme control, that Ruud didn’t look like he could win a single point even in his own service games, except from an ace. And Ruud is no novice—he’s a clay court specialist who has climbed rapidly up the ATP rankings. Yet, he was no match for Nadal. “I’m not the first victim,” said Ruud ruefully after the match. “I know there have been many before.”

Incredibly, Nadal has never lost a French Open final, he hasn’t even been extended to five sets. Victims of his straight sets victories, before Ruud, had included two all-time greats. He humiliated Djokovic 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 in the 2020 final, and had rolled over Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 in 2008.

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What is it about Nadal that makes him almost unbeatable at Roland Garros, where he has lost only three matches out of 115 in an 18-year span? The cornerstone of this superhuman effort is a severe forehand topspin that loops and veers away on his opponent’s backhand because Nadal is left-handed. That most of his opponents are right-handed plays to Nadal’s advantage. It’s hard to counter a high-kicking loopy topspin on the backhand. You have to either hit it on the up, with loss of control, or get pulled off the court if you wait for the ball to come to a normal hitting arc.

Nadal developed his gameplan early on when he beat Federer in three back-to-back finals in 2006, 2007, and 2008. That was Federer in his prime, with a classic one-handed backhand drive that had become a hallmark of his game. And yet, Nadal pinned him relentlessly with his unerring topspin directed at the Federer backhand.

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You might wonder why opponents don’t do the same to Nadal. Well, they do have more success when they play more to Nadal’s backhand, especially at Roland Garros. But none of them has a forehand topspin as extreme as Nadal’s. Besides, they are more used to playing right-handers and have developed their gameplans accordingly. 

We saw Ruud, for instance, going time and again for his favourite inside-out forehand even though it played into Nadal’s hands. A right-handed opponent would struggle against that shot, but for Nadal it’s a cinch because he has more reach on the forehand and packs a punch with it. We also see this in approach shots to Nadal’s forehand, where an opponent goes for a net play and invariably gets passed with an angled forehand on the run from the Spaniard.

The Paris clay is Nadal’s ally in this. It decelerates the ball rapidly and makes it sit up for Nadal to unleash those topspins and acute angles. He has the perfect game for that surface and his record there will probably stand forever. Ruud wasn’t wrong in saying that to play Nadal at Roland Garros is the greatest challenge in tennis. And that becomes doubly challenging in a final, where Nadal’s record, experience, and psychological advantage become overwhelming. 

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.

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