Thursday 19 October 2017

Re-invented Rafa better than ever in 'La Decima'

Rafael Nadal has a firm grip on the trophy as he celebrates after beating Stan Wawrinka at Roland Garros to win the French Open for the 10th time. Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images
Rafael Nadal has a firm grip on the trophy as he celebrates after beating Stan Wawrinka at Roland Garros to win the French Open for the 10th time. Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

Simon Briggs

Rafael Nadal had one shaky moment at Roland Garros yesterday. It came not when he was ripping Stan Wawrinka limb from limb on Court Philippe Chatrier, but when he took possession of a special replica trophy to mark 'La Decima' - his tenth French Open title.

Underestimating the weight of his very own Coupe des Mousquetaires, Nadal let it slip halfway out of his grasp.

But his reflexes, razor-sharp all the way through this tournament, were quick enough to save him.

He snatched up the cup before it hit the ground, and then embraced the man who had made the presentation - his uncle Toni Nadal, who will step down from his day-to-day coaching team at the end of the season.

The formalities and statistics ended up overshadowing the match itself, which proved disappointingly one-sided.

With his 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 victory, Nadal became the first player to land the same Grand Slam more than nine times in the Open era.

Admittedly, Margaret Court won the Australian Open 11 times, but most of them came in the 1960s, when you barely needed an overarm serve to participate.

In terms of sporting dynasties, this is an outlier. In squash, Jahangir Khan went unbeaten between the spring of 1981 and the winter of 1986, while 400m hurdler Ed Moses overcame all-comers for just under a decade, starting in August 1977.

But to achieve Nadal's level of dominance in tennis, the most global of sports, is mind-boggling.

Perhaps the playing field is tilted a little by the specific demands of clay - a surface that Americans struggle to master because of its rarity in their country. But Nadal has been seeing off challengers at Roland Garros since 2005 and seems to be getting better.

"This is by far the best tennis I have ever seen Rafa play," said Eurosport commentator Greg Rusedski. "And at 31 years of age, that is frightening. Absolutely no one would have beaten him today, no chance whatsoever.

"All these extra layers he's put into his game makes him unstoppable, like a new guy out there. And to do that at his age is so difficult."

Wawrinka had the unenviable job of halting the Nadal juggernaut yesterday - a task that would have required him to play like a composite of Roger Federer, Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver.

Instead, he kept smacking his forehand in all directions except the one for which he was aiming. His unforced-error count had proliferated into double figures by the fourth game, whereas Nadal's final tally stood at just 12 for the match.

And it was not as if the Spaniard was playing conservatively. One hooked forehand, hit up the line at a dead run, travelled so flat and fast that it could have left scorch marks.

Afterwards, Wawrinka played down the physical after-effects of his four-hour, 34-minute semi-final against Andy Murray on Friday. Mentally, though, he admitted to being worn out by a busy three weeks.

Extra

So what are those "extra layers" that Nadal has added to his game? His serve is beefier, and his forehand deeper, but the real change has come on the backhand.

He doesn't bother to run around it any more, but takes it early in the mould of Novak Djokovic, making it a weapon in its own right.

The parallel with Federer, whose Australian Open triumph was also built on a reinvented backhand, are impossible to ignore.

It is strange to think that, until yesterday, Nadal had not won a Slam for three years and afterwards he admitted that he had surprised himself with his own resilience.

"In 2005, I thought I'd be fishing on my boat in Mallorca in 2017," he said. "I didn't really think I'd have such a long career and win so many tournaments.

"Today was special because I had this very special gift - the replica of the cup. It's a lot of joy. Trust me, I'm very happy." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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