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Tensational! Nadal better than ever

Tennis

PARIS - The scary thing about Rafael Nadal winning La Decima was that he has never made it look easier.

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Rafael Nadal celebrates winning the final against Stan Wawrinka. Photo: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

From the straggly-haired teenager with no sleeves who emerged from left field to win in 2005, to the sporadically injured thirtysomething in 2017, it was never so straightforward.

Such a monopoly did he exercise that he romped through the fortnight for the loss of just 35 games. The overall achievement is magnificent but Sunday’s final was a non-event as he routed Stan Wawrinka 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 in just over two hours.

Winning a truly international event of peak status 10 times in 13 years probably exceeds anything comparable in any other sport of our times. One thing for sure is that Roland Garros has never known his like before and never will again.

Nadal now has three weeks instead of two to prepare for Wimbledon due to the extended gap. If fully fit, he would be very much in the frame for SW19, but he said on Sunday that his hopes may depend on how his knees react to playing on grass.

‘It’s a while since I played a good Wimbledon,’ said the Spaniard after the match. ‘Since 2012 it has been tough for me to compete on grass. I need strong legs.

‘I hope that my knees will hold and I have good preparation. If I’m healthy then I will have my chance to play well.’

Photo: Benoit Tessier/Reuters

Statistically this was Nadal’s least taxing of the 10 Roland Garros triumphs, and only Bjorn Borg has won it more comfortably in the post-1968 Open Era, dropping just 32 games in 1978.

Perhaps it was Holland’s Robin Haase who summed it up best during this fortnight, after being beasted by the Spaniard in the second round.

‘At the beginning I was way better - and then the warm-up ended,’ he joked. That is what it has been like for Nadal’s opponents, whether it was 2015 champion Wawrinka on Sunday, or one of his most obvious heirs apparent, Dominic Thiem, in the semi-finals.

‘This tournament I have been playing great since the beginning so it was a perfect Roland Garros for me,’ said Nadal. ‘There have been some tough times so it’s great to have success like this again.’

You were left wondering how many more French Opens, even at 31, he could win, and Roger Federer might be cogitating, anxiously, on the same thing.

Rafael Nadal celebrates with the trophy after winning the final against Stan Wawrinka. Photo: Benoit Tessier/Reuters

Federer is in Stuttgart, preparing his carefully timed re-entry into tennis as he plays the grass court event there in the coming week.

The Swiss has 18 Grand Slam titles and now Nadal has 15, having just overtaken Pete Sampras.

If Nadal had held on to his 3-1 lead in the deciding set of the Australian Open final against Federer he would presently be just one behind the great Swiss. Between them they have won six of the seven biggest titles so far this year.

He is almost certain to enter Wimbledon as world No 2, as he is back in that position this morning for the first time since October 2014.

This was his first major title since here in June that year, and in the intervening time it has often looked like his body was going to give out on him, with the wrist, back and knees all having laid him low.

‘During the last three years I had doubts and in a few days I will still have doubts,’ he said. ‘Doubts are good because they give you the possibility to work with intensity.’

A year ago he left Roland Garros in tears after having to pull out of the third round with a damaged wrist tendon.

Now he returns to Mallorca in triumph once again, before heading to London to play at the Aegon Championships at Queen’s which begin a week on Monday.

Rafael Nadal celebrates with the trophy after winning the final against Stan Wawrinka. Photo: Christian Hartmann/Reuters

There was a touching scene at the presentation when his uncle and long-time coach Toni joined him on the podium to present him with a replica of the Coupe des Mousquetaires to mark the big 10.

Toni will step back at the end of this year to spend time at the tennis academy they have opened on the Balearic island. The coaching team has been freshened up with the addition of former world No 1 Carlos Moya, and that seems to have added fresh impetus.

‘I think his level is the best ever on clay,’ assessed Wawrinka. ‘I got caught a bit in between with my strokes. But he puts this doubt in your head when he’s like this.’

Wawrinka came into this match, played on a sultry afternoon, bolstered by two pieces of knowledge: that he had won all three of his previous Grand Slam finals, and that Nadal had not been properly tested.

In the last three years the Spaniard’s nerve has been prone to go, most notably at the US Open.

Yet the burly Swiss - like Nadal attempting to become the oldest Paris winner in the modern era - never got close enough to test that theory out.

He had his one break point in the third game, and that was as good as it got. Nadal dropped only 15 points on serve in the whole match and his backhand has probably never looked more effective, let alone his trademark, booming forehand.

The Swiss body language began to sag towards the end of the first set, and just before the end of the second Wawrinka smashed his racket into the clay, as his tactical switch of trying to move Nadal around ended in failure.

Wawrinka could do nothing and surely Andy Murray, whom he beat in the semi-final, would not have been massively more competitive with the Spaniard in this kind of mood.

At the end Nadal fell backwards on to the clay in celebration. 

Who knows, he might still be doing it when this stadium is finally upgraded with a roof in 2020.

NADAL’S 10 TRIUMPHS

2005 Mariano Puerta (Arg) 6-7, 6-3, 6-1, 7-5

2006 Roger Federer (Swi) 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6

2007 Roger Federer 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4

2008 Roger Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0

2010 Robin Soderling (Swe) 6-4, 6-2, 6-4

2011 Roger Federer 7-5, 7-6, 5-7, 6-1

2012 Novak Djokovic (Ser) 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5

2013 David Ferrer (Spa) 6-3, 6-2, 6-3

2014 Novak Djokovic 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4

2017 Stan Wawrinka (Swi) 6-2, 6-3, 6-1

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