PARIS — He fooled us again, which is, in itself, quite a feat at this stage of the game.
Perhaps Rafael Nadal really means it when he talks down his chances at Roland Garros, and there was certainly no fakery involved last month when he limped and grimaced through the final set of an early-round defeat at the Italian Open and looked particularly weary of the grind and the chronic pain in his left foot.
Nadal did indeed find himself in unfamiliar territory as he returned to his favorite stomping ground of Roland Garros. He was very short on clay-court matches and without any clay-court titles this season as the tournament began. Novak Djokovic appeared to be regathering momentum. Carlos Alcaraz, a young Spaniard, seemed to be rising like a rocket.
But there is no tonic quite like Parisian red clay for Nadal. And on Sunday, after working his way through the loaded top half of the draw, he was much too much, even at less than his best, for the No. 8 seed Casper Ruud in the French Open men’s final, winning 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 in a match that lasted 2 hours and 18 minutes.
The victory secured Nadal his 14th men’s singles title at the tournament, extending a French Open record that looks more unbeatable with every passing spring.
He also extended his lead in the three-way majors race with Djokovic and Roger Federer. Nadal now has a men’s record 22 Grand Slam singles titles, two more than Djokovic, whom Nadal beat in the quarterfinals here, and Federer, who at age 40 is still recovering from his latest knee surgery.
Sunday’s triumph, with Billie Jean King and King Felipe VI of Spain in attendance, also made Nadal, at 36, the oldest man to win the French Open, surpassing his compatriot Andrés Gimeno, who won the title in 1972 at age 34.
“I for sure never believed I would be here at 36 being competitive again, playing in the most important court of my career one more time in the final,” Nadal said. “It means a lot to me, means everything. It just means a lot of energy to try to keep going.”
Nadal’s tone of late has been valedictory: he has repeatedly referred to the possibility that he could be playing his final French Open. But after slamming the door on Ruud on Sunday and then hugging him at the net, Nadal made it clear that this was not going to be the tennis equivalent of a walk-off grand slam.
“I don’t know what can happen in the future but I’m going to keep fighting to try to keep going,” he said, as the sellout crowd of 15,000, clearly well aware of the speculation, roared its approval.
He certainly looked ready for more against Ruud, picking up speed and precision as the match progressed. Nadal was not at his best early and was at times far from his best: losing his serve in the third game with two double faults and an off-rhythm forehand unforced error into the middle of the net. But Ruud was also struggling to find his way, looking edgy and restricted on the pivotal points in the opening set and then getting outplayed on the pivotal points in the later stages after he had worked through his nerves.
His one genuine surge came at the start of the second set, when he broke Nadal’s serve again to take a 3-1 lead but at 30-30 in the next game, Ruud lined up an inside-out forehand and perhaps sensing that excellence was required, went for just too much and missed. Nadal broke him back on the next point and would not lose another game: reeling off 11 straight and finishing off the victory with a backhand down the line in the sunshine.
Nadal is in the midst of one of his most remarkable seasons, despite the chronic pain that left him so downbeat in Rome and required intensive treatment in Paris.
After missing nearly all of the second half of the 2021 season because of the foot problem — he has a condition known as Müller-Weiss syndrome — he roared back to win the Australian Open, rallying to defeat Daniil Medvedev in a five-set final.
He went on to start the season with 20 straight victories before losing in the final of the BNP Paribas Open in March to American Taylor Fritz, in part because of a new injury: a stress fracture in his ribs. That forced Nadal to take another extended break and miss most of the clay-court season before returning in Madrid last month.
He was beaten by Alcaraz in the quarterfinals and then beaten by Denis Shapovalov in the round-of-16 in Rome. But Nadal arrived at Roland Garros with his longtime physician Angel Ruiz-Cotorro, who was able to help Nadal manage the pain and a very rough draw.
Nadal had to defeat four of the top nine seeds to win the title: No. 9 Felix Auger-Aliassime, No. 1 Djokovic, No. 3 Alexander Zverev and No. 8 Ruud in what turned out to the most lopsided of all those matches.
Nadal has not only won 14 French Open singles titles, he has won all 14 of the singles finals he has played at Roland Garros.
So many records. So much enduring excellence, and Ruud, an affable 23-year-old Norwegian, certainly needed no reminder of his opponent’s achievements as he walked into the Philippe Chatrier Court as the first Norwegian man to play in a Grand Slam singles final.
Ruud, who broke into the top 10 last year, has had two main role models as he emerged from a nation better known for excelling on snow than on clay. There was his father, Christian, who coached him and was a tour-level player ranked as high as No. 39 in 1995. And there was Nadal, with his extreme topspin forehand and hard-wired combativeness.
He began training regularly with his team at Nadal’s tennis academy in Majorca, Spain, in 2018 and even played — and lost — practice sets against Nadal.
He also has played golf with Nadal, thinking he was in for a relaxed experience only to discover that Nadal’s competitive streak was not restricted to the tennis court.
But Sunday was Ruud’s first chance to face Nadal on tour.
“To play Rafa in a Roland Garros final is probably the greatest challenge there is in this sport,” Ruud said.
That was before the final, and on Sunday afternoon after it was over in a hurry, Ruud made it clear in his runner-up speech his that he had not changed his mind.
“It’s not easy, I’m not the first victim,” Ruud said to Nadal. “I know that there have been many before.”
And not to get fooled again, but it will be intriguing to see, in light of Nadal’s age and increasingly nostalgic mood, whether Ruud will turn out to be the last.
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