The French Open final was a formality. The whole tournament seemed like a formality, really. Playing Rafael Nadal in Paris is suffocating. Some of the best players in the history of the game have looked like they were merely praying to make clean contact against the Spaniard at Roland Garros. It almost seems as if his opponents are swiping at the ball as their muscles give out and their field of vision disappears. As the first set of Sunday’s match came to an end, it looked as if Stan Wawrinka had already gone blind.
Wawrinka is a thrilling, go-for-broke player. He hits a sharp, flat ball that carries through the air as if his end of the court were at the top of a hill. If his winner count is high, he usually leaves the court with a smile. This, no doubt, is a fast-court player’s skill set, but Wawrinka has found his way at the French Open with unconventional means, going for his shots and blowing both superior and inferior opponents off the court. On clay, where even the flattest shots sit up, the margin for error is particularly small for players trying to win with offense. Yet over the past two seasons he’s walked the Roland Garros tightrope, winning the tournament over a heavily favored Novak Djokovic in 2015 and making the semifinals last year.
A tactical view says that Wawrinka shouldn’t be this successful in the age of the human backboard, but he is. In his first three grand slam finals, each at a different tournament, he upset the reigning world no. 1. If anybody was going to disrupt a reborn Nadal’s charge toward his 10th bite of the Coupe des Mousquetaires, it would be Wawrinka.
That fantasy didn’t last long. The 6–2, 6–3, 6–1 drubbing was over in just over two hours. From the opening game, Nadal streaked about the court like a cannonball. Deep in the final of this year’s Australian Open, there was a déjà vu–inducing point when Nadal broke Roger Federer to pull ahead in the match’s deciding set. It was the vintage display of Nadal being his old, invincible, play-an-extra-shot self — even if it ended up being misleading. The same feeling came across in this match, but in the first game. Nadal served to Wawrinka’s backhand and received a heavy return out wide. Nadal hit his dimension-bending crosscourt forehand, which Wawrinka barely scraped back from a position wide of the doubles alley. Pushed even farther out of the ad court, Nadal bent another forehand, this time down the line and into the corner. Wawrinka did well to even reach the ball before losing the point. From there, the tone was set. That’s the difference that the clay makes for Nadal. What took hours in Melbourne took two minutes in Paris.
Nadal levitated during the entire tournament, but on Sunday, he basically didn’t need to concern himself with timing or covering the ground in between his shots. Whether he was sliding, running full on, or falling away from the ball, he generated enormous, heart-stopping power on his strokes. On Sunday, nearly every forehand lunged with the intensity we typically only see from his best shots. If Nadal was going to make contact with the ball at all, he wasn’t going to lose the point.
Typically, when a top player wins six total games in a best-of-five-set match, it’s a sign that they played significantly below their usual level. But Wawrinka repeatedly put himself in favorable positions. He constructed his points fairly well. On a faster surface, the match, if nothing else, would have stretched on for a bit longer. But on some days, the best players, like Nadal, can reach an untouchable level.
In the second set, Wawrinka served already down a break. Nadal hit a deep return to the Swiss’s forehand. Both men took their positions deep behind the baseline before Nadal gained an offensive position, moving Wawrinka from side to side. To return a biting Nadal forehand, Wawrinka glided across the width of the court. From meters behind the baseline, he loaded up a backhand that looked like it would fall for a winner. The shot made the crowd gasp. Then Nadal, making a dead sprint for the ball, reached and slapped a forehand down the line that landed smack in the corner of the court. Wawrinka applauded along with the fans. This was Nadal at his unstoppable best.
Sometimes an efficient beating becomes a failure of entertainment: a prizefighter knocking back unworthy challengers handpicked for easy title defenses, a playoff basketball team facing the Nets. This, though, wasn’t a run-of-the-mill mismatch; it was an athlete performing at a level so rarely reached that it made you feel lucky to be alive to see it.
It’s a rare but beautiful thing to watch an athlete chasing their upper limits, seemingly unencumbered in competition with the next best person in the world. On Sunday, Nadal was chasing nine former Nadals and put on a performance that may have overshadowed all of them. It takes a great champion to outperform the field. It takes a transcendent one to outperform boredom when there is no competition.
After Sunday, Nadal jumped to second in the world rankings for the first time since late 2014. He’s the winningest player on the year, and the clear front-runner in the race for the year-end top spot. His French Open title was his 10th — making him the first player in the Open Era to win a single major 10 times — and his 15th major overall, breaking his tie with Pete Sampras for second on the all time list.
Nadal lost 35 games across the entire French Open, the second fewest by a men’s champion at a major in the Open era. The only player to do better was Bjorn Borg, who dropped only 32 games at the 1978 edition of the tournament.
As of now, with Novak Djokovic in free fall, Andy Murray enduring an extended spell of irrelevance, and the tour’s young challengers still struggling to play their best on big stages, it looks like Nadal’s only consistent rival will ever be Federer, who was absent for the clay season but loves the upcoming grass nearly as much as Nadal loves the dirt. The story of these two separating themselves from the field is a cliché now. Despite expectations and the bodily decay that comes with time and the eulogies that have already been written, the same players, as always, are better than everybody else.
This, though, is its own treat. We get to watch some of the most decorated players in the history of the game examine their own limits. This is as much a failure of the competition as it is a presentation of just how good the best players are. Competitive balance comes and goes, but once Federer and Nadal retire, the rivalry will end.
Comebacks are volatile. Jimmy Connors reaching the U.S. Open semifinals at 39 is tennis legend, but it was also a perfect alignment of the stars. This tournament wasn’t a fluke, and this year hasn’t been either. We’ve seen the best version of Roger Federer in years. And after this tournament, perhaps we’re seeing the best version of Nadal, period. More than a decade in, the prospect of them meeting at Wimbledon has never sounded better.