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Rafa is far too superior for his own good!
In the minutes before the two men walked out onto Phillipe Chatrier, John McEnroe was asked about how Dominic Thiem can believe that he can beat Rafael Nadal on a stage that nobody ever has. “Trust the hard work he has put in, build on the fact he has beaten him before and has to match the intensity that Rafa brings.” The first two points Thiem could definitely have used to his advantage, but even as committed as he is, no one is close to Nadal when it comes to motivation. The greatest competitor the sport, and maybe all of sport, has ever seen has just won an earth-shattering eleventh Coupe des Mousquetaires. Seven players have tried to beat the world’s best player on finals day at Roland Garros, but not even one of them has taken him to the brink of defeat. The dominance and sheer confidence the man possesses when he steps on to that court in Paris has been sensational to watch over the last decade. However, as we have not seen Nadal pushed to the limit, we have taken his accomplishments for granted.
During the only significant “test” of his French Open adventure against Diego Schwartzman, a fellow tennis legend said something which could be seen as counter-intuitive. Mats Wilander on commentary said that Nadal is “too good a clay-court player now.” Before you guys all pick up your pitchforks and go to ridicule Wilander, there is sense to this statement. With Nadal constantly improving as a player, his shots become better. He strikes the ball with more force and they often land deeper in the court. This means that there are actually less awkward bounces for the opponent to deal with. No longer do we see a trademark forehand landing inside the service box and spinning wickedly. Furthermore, instead of running around his backhand to unravel his left arm, he now trusts his backhand more than ever. We do not see those winners from ridiculous positions. In many of his matches, he beats opponents in a manner that is no longer spectacular. He is simply playing the right shot at the right time. Instead of looking at the infrequency of magical passing shots, we should now marvel at the consistency of this champion and his mental strength to still want to win more than any other guy on tour.
Before this eagerly anticipated final, Catherine Withaker said that many people, such as the partisan French crowd and fellow pundits, would want Thiem to end up on the victorious side. Even during the match today, the crowd seemed to applaud vociferously when Thiem had a brilliant performance in the first set. Now, it is understandable that when one man has won the event so many times, people want to speculate whether it would be good for tennis if we had a new man enter the winner’s circle. Despite that desire to see something new, as Nadal has told us many times himself, he may not have many years left on the tour. This may be one of the last times that we see the greatest player of his generation on his favourite surface. We may never see someone have so much of a hold on the trophy as him, so feel fortunate we live in the same era as this special Spaniard.
So, another convincing victory and we have run out of superlatives to describe his achievements. All I will say is that cherish this while you can, the King of Clay will not play forever.