How Rafael Nadal reigned supreme again at the French Open to win a record-setting 22nd Grand Slam

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Rafael Nadal didn’t fall to the ground in celebration on Sunday.

There was perhaps no need for such theatrics. Instead, he raised his arms over his head and gave an emphatic fistpump to the adoring crowd. For much of the championship match he had left little doubt about what the outcome would be.

Just like he had done so many times over the course of his career at the French Open.

Nadal had just defeated — no, make that dominated — Casper Ruud, a first-time finalist and student from his academy. Nadal won the final 11 games for a 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 victory and further cemented his already unrivaled legacy at the tournament and in the sport.

“For me it’s very difficult to describe the feelings that I have,” Nadal said during his on-court trophy ceremony. “It’s something I never believed. Being here at 36, being competitive again, playing on the most important court of my career … it means everything. I don’t know what can happen in the future, but I’m going to keep fighting to try to keep going so many times.”

For a man dubbed the “King of Clay,” who had already won a record-shattering 13 titles at the tournament and has his own statue on the grounds, Nadal’s hoisting of yet another trophy may seem like no surprise for some. Predictable, even.

But this year, such a result was anything but. Nadal knew that too, and his gratitude was evident.

In March, he suffered a stress fracture in his ribs at Indian Wells. That, along with recurring pain from his chronic left foot injury during his last tune-up tournament, left his status for Roland Garros in doubt until days before it began. Even when he confirmed he would be playing, no one knew what to expect from Nadal.

But Nadal made his way through the draw and defied all expectations. With his personal doctor on site for daily treatment, he pulled off one impressive win after another, including over world No. 1 and 2021 champion Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals and against No. 9 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime in a five-set thriller in the fourth round. Improbably, he made his way back to the final.

Now, despite the odds, Nadal is the oldest French Open winner in tournament history and has won his 22nd major title — two more than Djokovic and Roger Federer.

“Rafa getting to 22, and with 14 titles at Roland Garros, is one of the greatest accomplishments in sports,” said Pam Shriver, the 21-time major doubles champion and ESPN analyst. “He didn’t need to win one more to be the GOAT, but getting two ahead of Djokovic, with [Carlos] Alcaraz, Ruud, [Stefanos] Tsitsipas, [Alexander] Zverev and others only getting better … now he has distanced himself. Not to mention, now he’s halfway to the calendar-year Grand Slam.”

The adulations for Nadal were swift on Sunday. Everyone from Rod Laver to Billie Jean King weighed in on his greatness and his contributions to the sport on social media. “The King,” wrote Ons Jabeur, the No. 6-ranked women’s player, with no caveat about surface.

It was a stark contrast to where he was at the conclusion of the tournament a year ago.

For the latter part of the 2021 season, even Nadal wasn’t sure about whether he would be able to play again due to his foot. After the French Open, in which he lost to Djokovic in the semifinals, he played in just one tournament — the Citi Open in Washington. That performance in the nation’s capital left many wondering whether the end was near for Nadal’s career.

When he withdrew from the Canadian Open in August, he said the pain was preventing him from enjoying playing tennis and, perhaps most notably, allowing him to play with the fiery intensity he had become known for.

“I really don’t believe that I have the chance to fight for the things that I really need to fight for,” he said.

He soon announced he would officially shut himself down for the season. Speculation increased about his future and he later revealed that he too had contemplated walking away from the sport.

“[There were] a lot of conversations with the team, with the family about what can happen or what is going to happen if things continue like this, thinking that maybe [this] is a chance to say goodbye,” Nadal said in January.

Even his trip to Australia to start the 2022 season was almost derailed by a bout with COVID-19 in December that left him bedridden and “physically destroyed.”

But return he did.

Nadal recovered — and made history with his 21st major title at the Australian Open. It was an unbelievable, legacy-defining comeback victory over Daniil Medvedev, 2-6, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-4, 7-5. And it broke the tie with Djokovic and Federer for most Grand Slam titles by a men’s player.

He didn’t stop there. Nadal then won the Mexican Open, the next tournament he played, and seemed poised to win his fourth title of the year at Indian Wells but struggled with a stress fracture in his ribs in the final against Taylor Fritz. His health had betrayed him yet again.

Nadal announced he would be out recovering but hoped to be back in time for the clay season. He ultimately made his return at Madrid last month — after just five weeks. And then, in another cruel twist, he suffered a setback with his foot during the Italian Open. His French Open hopes seemed dashed.

Nadal arrived in Paris, engulfed in a sea of questions, and he confessed the foot pain was always there and he was just trying to manage it. It wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence. It seemed unlikely Nadal would be able to get past Djokovic in the quarters once the draw was revealed — if he were even able to get to that stage.

But then, as he’s done so many times over his career, Nadal let his play do the talking. He won his first match over Jordan Thompson 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 in just over two hours. His next two matches were also won in straight sets. Then came a tough test against Auger-Aliassime in the round of 16, in which he needed five sets and four hours and 21 minutes to win. But he left no doubt that his unparalleled will and trademark resilience was still very much there.

“He raised his level when he needed to,” Auger-Aliassime said after the match. “He was serving well in the fifth set, playing well behind the serve, being very aggressive, and I think he took it even higher, one step further.”

Against Djokovic, Nadal refused to allow another deciding set. Djokovic served for the fourth set at 5-3 but Nadal saved two set points and ultimately forced a tiebreak in which he was victorious.

Djokovic was unable to stop Nadal’s surge of momentum. “I lost to a better player today,” Djokovic said after the match.

Nadal looked on track for another marathon encounter against Zverev in the semifinals. The two were locked in a second-set tiebreak after more than three hours of play when Zverev hurt an ankle and was forced to retire from the match.

On Sunday, against another talented young opponent, Nadal didn’t need extra games or points, or an unfortunate injury across the net, to achieve his destiny. He took control from the start and never let up.

Ruud, who grew up idolizing Nadal and was able to rattle off with ease all seven of Nadal’s previous French Open final opponents, is further proof of Nadal’s legacy in the sport. The 23-year-old Norwegian, who attended Nadal’s 2013 final against David Ferrer as a teenager, has trained at Nadal’s academy for the past several years and has been candid about Nadal’s influence on his career.

“It’s your 14th time here, and 22nd all-around in Grand Slams, we all know what a champion you are,” Ruud said to Nadal on court after the match. “Today I got to feel what it’s like to play against you in the final, and it’s not easy. … You are a true inspiration for me and for everyone who follows tennis around the world. We all hope you will continue for some more time.”

But Nadal’s status for Wimbledon, or the rest of the season, is unclear, despite winning the first two majors of the year for the first time in his storied career.

He now has a chance to achieve the elusive Calendar Slam, something just two men have ever done in the sport’s history, and tie Serena Williams’ Open Era record of 23 major titles. But Nadal has said throughout the tournament he isn’t thinking that far ahead.

He can’t think about it. Nadal has said he doesn’t know how long he’ll be able to play tennis and has said every match he plays in could very well be his last. He insisted after his victory over Djokovic on Tuesday that he wasn’t focusing on anything beyond the French Open and was just trying to appreciate every moment.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen after here,” Nadal said. “I mean, I have what I have there in the foot, so if we are not able to find an improvement or a small solution on that, then it’s becoming super difficult for me. So that’s it. I am just enjoying every day that I have the chance to be here, and without thinking much about what can happen in the future.”

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