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The Incomparable Greatness of Rafael Nadal at the French Open

In winning his 11th career title at Roland Garros, Nadal not only cemented his place as the most dominant athlete in any single sporting event; he showed off the improvisational brilliance that has made this entire run possible

Rafael Nadal holding the French Open trophy Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Victor Wooten is perhaps the greatest living electric bassist. He’s known for tightening his guitar strap and hiking his instrument up nearly to his collarbone, and then unleashing torrents of notes so dense that it’s hard to believe they’re all being generated by one man and one bass. He’s a virtuoso with an arsenal of both party tricks and intricate heart-grabbing grooves, and every tone he produces gives off an aura of impossibility. The sounds his instrument makes seem to be conjured out of nowhere.

Improvising is as much a painting as it is a puzzle, as instinctual as it is calculated. For beginners, it’s akin to writing a poem while playing blitz chess. To be a good soloist, though, there are just two required ingredients: knowledge of the right notes and confidence. You need to have some sense of what you’re doing—there are 12 tones in an octave, 12 keys on the piano before a note is repeated, and when playing over any given chord, seven of those notes will be in a scale that can help create a noncontroversial melody—but it’s more important to act like every noise was on purpose. “You are never more than a half-step away from a right note,” Wooten has said. In other words: place unshakable faith in your moves, and everything will work out.

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal
Thibault Camus/AP Photo

If Roger Federer is tennis’s version of a conductor, the maestro cutting flowing lines through the air with his baton, Nadal is its Wooten, rigid and confusing until the moment everything snaps into place. Over the past two weeks, he crushed seven innocent souls en route to his 11th title at Roland Garros, and he did it with his trademark chromaticism. He hit wrong tones hard yet confidently, convincing onlookers that he knew where play was going to the point that it wasn’t surprising when he won rallies with the worst positioning imaginable. He was swung meters behind the baseline, off with the sideline umpire, when he slid down to the right note and turned full-run, scrambling, inside-out forehands into clean winners.

Nadal on clay is impossibility materializing. It’s Wooten arpeggiating the Ave Maria. It’s shotmaking that is nonsensical and then brilliant and then the Dementor’s kiss. It makes the contenders irrelevant. It would be boring in its predictability if it weren’t so damn mesmerizing.

Sunday’s French Open final lasted a little under three hours; the score was 6-4, 6-3, 6-2; and Nadal’s opposition was Dominic Thiem, the second-best clay-courter on tour, who spent the majority of the match frowning, sighing, and gesturing at the inevitability of shots he was unable to track down. Thiem was the player seemingly best suited to become a kingslayer. He’s young, and beat Nadal in straight sets in Madrid a month earlier. He had looked strong through his first six rounds of this tournament. And then he became the least intimidating member of Nadal’s sad Parisian rogues gallery.

With his 11th title in Paris, Nadal now has five more than Bjorn Borg’s French Open trophy haul, and three more than Andre Agassi’s total slam count. He has won more titles at the same major than any tennis player in the Open Era. Rafa was first triumphant at this event in 2005, when he wore sleeveless shirts and pirate pants and didn’t convince the competition of his melodies so much as he made it accept them. We’re so far from the beginning, and somehow, it doesn’t feel like we’re approaching the end.

Nadal is 86-2 at Roland Garros. In 2009, he famously lost his first match at the tournament, falling to Robin Soderling in the round of 16 while battling tendinitis in his knees. In 2015, he was defeated by Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals. With the exception of those two years and 2016—when he left the tournament without recording a loss after withdrawing with a wrist injury—Rafa has reigned supreme in every other Open since the now 32-year-old was 19 and playing in the men’s draw for the first time. The Spaniard’s teeth marks might as well be engraved in the Coupe des Mousquetaires.

He has never even been in a close final. No opponent has maintained hope against Nadal for longer than a set and a half. In 2014, Djokovic won the opening set of the final before taking just 11 combined games for the rest of the match. Roger Federer did the same in 2006, cruising to a 6-1 victory in the opener before also winning only 11 games the remainder of the way. In 2005, Mariano Puerta took the opener in a tiebreak before winning just nine more games, thus becoming the first man cast as Plate Holder in this story. None of Nadal’s finals in Paris have gone the distance. Those three matches are as competitive as he’s had on this stage since the time of Motorola Razrs and iPod minis.

Longevity and sustained dominance have been more pronounced in this era of sports than any other. Just last week, the Warriors won their third NBA Finals in four years, defeating a man, LeBron James, who has contested the past eight. Michael Phelps has defied the odds, as has Tom Brady, and in tennis Federer and Serena Williams have added to their piles of trophies so they’ve grown past historical competitors’ and into outer space. And yet, when it comes to dominance in a single competition, Nadal has managed to outshine them all.

Maybe John Wooden’s UCLA men’s basketball teams, which won 10 national championships in the span of 12 seasons from 1964 to 1975, is a comparable competitive stretch to Nadal’s run of 11 French Open titles in 14 years. Admittedly, the parallels are something of a stretch; basketball, especially the college game, is a different beast than tennis. But both the NCAA tournament and French Open are notorious for their randomness, and both Nadal and those Bruins controlled their respective events for amounts of time that spanned entire childhoods. After 1975, however, it took UCLA another 20 years to win a title; Rafa appears healthy enough that perhaps he could keep this going for another decade. The forecasts have been awfully hard to read recently.

The iconic winner’s celebration at the French Open involves crumpling to the dirt, lying supine, and marinating in the brick one last time before the tour’s courts turn green. Over the past decade, this too has been synonymous with Nadal. But this year, with Thiem vanquished, Rafa didn’t bother; he just raised his arms in the air and walked to the net. Perhaps another trophy doesn’t provide the thrill it once did, or this one came so easily that anything more would have felt excessive.

After all this time, Nadal is still experimenting, shifting things around. He’s moving from a right note to an unfamiliar, intriguing, discordant one. He’s the greatest champion Roland Garros has ever had, and he wouldn’t be true to form if he wasn’t changing something, at least, in Decade 2 of his encore.