PARIS – He fooled us again, which is, in itself, a feat at this stage of the game.
Maybe Rafael Nadal really means it when he talks about reducing his chances at Roland Garros and there was certainly no falsification last month when he limped and grimaced in the last set of a defeat at the start of the round at the Italian Open and looked very tired from grinding and chronic pain in his left leg.
Nadal was indeed found in unknown territory as he was returning to his favorite stadium of Roland Garros. He was very short on clay court matches and without European titles on clay court this season as the tournament started.
But there is no tonic like the Parisian red clay for Nadal. And on Sunday, after scoring a loaded top half of the draw, it was too much, even less than his best, for No. 8 winner 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 title in the men’s singles tournament, extending a French Open record that looks more unbeatable each passing spring.
He also extended his lead in the three-legged match with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. Nadal now holds the record for most men’s 22 Grand Slam singles titles, two more than Djokovic, whom Nadal won in the quarterfinals here, and Federer, who at 40 is still recovering from his last knee operation.
Sunday’s triumph, with Billie Jean King and King Felipe VI of Spain in attendance, also made Nadal, 36, the oldest man to win the French Open, surpassing compatriot Andrés Gimeno, who won the title in 1972 at the age of 34 years.
So many records. Such enduring excellence and Rudd, a kind 23-year-old Norwegian, certainly needed no reminder of his opponent’s achievements as he entered the Philippe Chatrier Court as the first Norwegian to play in a Grand Slam final single.
Rudd, who entered the top 10 last year, had two key role models as he emerged from a nation best known for its excellent snow rather than clay. There was his father, Christian, who coached him and was a tournament-level player who was ranked No. 39 in 1995. And he was Nadal, with his extreme top laptop and his tough fighting spirit.
He started training regularly with his team at Nadal’s tennis academy in Mallorca, Spain, in 2018 and played – and lost – a training set against Nadal.
He has also played golf with Nadal, thinking he had a relaxed experience only to discover that Nadal’s competitive streak was not limited to the tennis court.
But Sunday was Rudd’s first chance to face Nadal on tour.
“We all know what a champion you are and today I felt what it was like to play against you in the final,” Rudd told the crowd after the match. “It’s not easy, I’m not the first victim.”
And this before the final. He certainly has not changed his mind now.