Wednesday 22 November 2017

I doubted if I would ever return to my best – Nadal

Simon Briggs IN PARIS

After powering one final forehand uppercut into the open court, Rafael Nadal performed the obligatory modern victory celebration – lying down on his back in the wet clay of Court Philippe Chatrier.

It had been a strange day at Roland Garros. Drizzle fell steadily from a dove-grey Parisian sky. Protestors interrupted play and even startled Nadal briefly out of his usual meditative focus. David Ferrer, the sacrificial victim, was almost obsequious in his determination not to spoil the party.

Ultimately, though, only one thing mattered. Nadal won his eighth French Open title, and his 12th Grand Slam in all, so moving to equal third in the all-time standings alongside Roy Emerson.

Only Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, the man he has tormented for much of the past decade, remain ahead of him.

"I never like to compare years," said Nadal after his 6-3 6-2 6-3 victory. "But it's true that this year means something very special for me. Five months ago, nobody on my team dreamed about a comeback like this."

Did he ever doubt, during the seven months he was stuck at home in Mallorca, that he would be able to compete at this level?

"People who don't have doubts is because they are so arrogant," he replied.

"I for sure have doubts, but I work as much as I can to be here. That's the only thing I can do."

Realistically, there were only two men with a shot at winning this title: Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

So, from the moment that they both landed in the same half of the draw, everyone guessed that the word "final" would have a different meaning at this year's Roland Garros. It would be the last match, yes, but not the decisive one.

Arriving in a cold, grey Paris in what seemed like autumn rather than springtime, Nadal was scratchy in his first few matches, dropping a set to world No 59 Daniel Brands on the first Monday.

But then he began gradually cranking up his arsenal, like a video-gamer finding a new and improved weapon on each level. It was an echo of his entire season.

"In Vina del Mar, he was terrible," said Toni Nadal, his coach and uncle, as he thought back to Rafael's first tournament of the year in Chile four months ago.

"Then in Sao Paolo he was very, very down, because he had so much pain. Before playing the semi-final, I talked with him for half-an-hour because he was really sad then."

PEP-TALK

The pep-talk must have worked, because Nadal went out and struggled to a hard-fought win over world No 111 Martin Alund. From that moment, he has lost only once – to Djokovic in the final of the Monte Carlo Masters.

The unfortunate Ferrer has crossed his path four times this year and been despatched on each occasion.

Yesterday Nadal was superior in every statistic, from his first-serve percentage to his break-point conversion rate.

Had it come to it, he would have finished a Sudoku puzzle quicker than Ferrer, or named more members of Real Madrid's European Cup-winning side of 1960. He was just in that sort of mood.

The first break of Ferrer's serve came up in the third game of the match, and there would be seven more before the match was done.

Almost all the way through, the drizzle kept up a steady patter on macintoshes and umbrellas, further dampening what was already a rather flat atmosphere. Usain Bolt, having agreed to present the Coupe des Mousquetaires, must have wondered whether there was more fun to be had elsewhere in Paris. He looked cold, damp and slightly bored in his seat in the front row of the President's Box.

The only fireworks were the ones held by the protestors objecting to France's recent law legalising same-sex marriage. First play was stopped for a few moments while two people holding a banner were ejected from the upper tier. Then some bare-chested hothead in a mask lit a flare and jumped onto the side of the court, where he was rugby-tackled by a security guard.

Nadal was momentarily alarmed, and went on to be broken in a loose game that featured a double-fault. But Ferrer, biddable as ever, immediately offered back two double-faults of his own to lose the second set.

"Rafael, in important moments, he's the best," Ferrer said.

"He has everything... He can play five sets two days ago and today he can play like similar tennis."

This was perhaps the only concern for the Nadal camp: no-one knew how his dodgy knees would pull up after his first five-set match of the year.

But he confirmed last night that "Today I was able to compete with my 100pc, so that's fantastic".

As every tennis tragic knows, the upshot was that Nadal has become the first man since World War One to win the same grand slam eight times.

What, then, about Wimbledon?

The likelihood is that Nadal will be seeded down at No 5, which could mean an unpleasant quarter-final surprise for Djokovic, Andy Murray or Roger Federer. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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