PARIS — When Rafael Nadal was beaten by Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals of the 2015 French Open and then pulled out of Roland Garros midway through the event a year later, it seemed like Rafa’s Grand Slam winning days would be found only on DVR. Injuries had become commonplace, and even in the rare instance when Nadal was healthy, his results were less than stellar.
And then this happened. Nadal dominated Stan Wawrinka 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 to win the French Open. And if you haven’t heard by now, that’s 10 championships at Roland Garros, which begs the question: How many more?
Gustavo Kuerten, who won the French three times in 1997, 2000 and 2001, believes Nadal could win 15. Fifteen! Perhaps, but let’s put 10 in perspective first. This is the first time any man has achieved La Decima in any Grand Slam event (Rafa already managed this feat in Monte Carlo and Barcelona this year). The only person ever to win a singles title more often was Margaret Court, but her 11 Australian Open victories spanned the amateur and professional eras.
Nadal has dominated the French Open in a way no one thought, especially when you consider he played in an era with Roger Federer and Djokovic. His run through the Roland Garros draw speaks to Nadal’s motivation, desire and longevity. And his forehand? That alone might be enshrined in history as arguably the single best stroke tennis has ever seen.
“This tournament I have been playing great during the whole event since the beginning,” Nadal said afterward. “So it’s been, I think, a perfect Roland Garros for me. So it’s not that I am playing more or less aggressive. I am [just] playing well. And when you play well, you have the chance to play more aggressive.”
In soccer, La Decima was originally used to refer to Real Madrid’s quest to be the first 10-time European Cup (now Champions League) champs, something the team managed in 2014. (They have added two more since.) Ryan Giggs and his manager, Alex Ferguson, won 13 Premier League titles in England with Manchester United between 1993 and 2013, an incredible achievement. But these were team achievements.
No one was standing alone in the middle of a tennis court with nary a soul to confer with when things were going awry. Between 1947 and 1964, the New York Yankees won the World Series 10 times. The Boston Celtics won the NBA Championships 11 times in 13 years between 1957 and 1969. But again, they had a whole squad to share in the success.
In British horse racing, AP McCoy won the jockeys’ championship 20 times in a row between 1996 and 2015, a phenomenal run, but at least half of his work was done by the horse. Same thing with Richard Petty, who won 15 titles and two different events, but he can thank his outstanding car for a good amount of that success. And we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Phil Taylor, who remarkably won the world darts title in 11 of 12 years.
While a big congratulations are in order for Phil Taylor, Rafa was out there by himself, battling worthy opponents, injury and, in his worst moments, most likely the demons that inevitably interfere in all players’ existence. And let’s just say Taylor likely didn’t need to go through the same postmatch recovery regiment as Rafa.
But as always, Nadal was quick to praise his camp.
“The team spirit has been very positive since the beginning,” Nadal said. Great combination with Francis [Roig], Toni [Nadal] and Carlos [Moya]. … We have been working a really good atmosphere and that really helps.”
Just as he did in 2013, when he recovered from injury to win three of the four majors, Nadal has showed enormous resilience. Reaching the final in Australia at the start of the year set him up well, and by the time he reached the clay-court season, his confidence was high. He ripped through Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid. And then the French Open happened.
For the 10th time at Roland Garros in 13 years, no one could stop Nadal. And moving forward, he might find himself rolling downhill. Rafa moved up to No. 2 in the world. With Murray defending 2,500 points over the next five weeks compared to none by the Spaniard (he missed the grass-court season in 2016), Nadal could even be No. 1 by the time Wimbledon is completed on July 16.
He’s also miles ahead in the calendar year race — for points earned in 2017 — so if leaping to the top position in the world doesn’t happen at Wimbledon, it is probably only a matter of time. And with Grand Slam title No 15, he is now back within three of Roger Federer in the list of all-time winners.
“There has been a while since I don’t play very good Wimbledon,” Nadal said. “It’s true that after 2012 what happened with my knees have been tougher and tougher to compete on grass for me. … I love grass, everybody knows, and it’s a surface that I really enjoyed a lot playing there. And I miss play with Wimbledon again. So I hope that my knees hold well and I can have the preparation that I really need.”
Nadal will continual to battle against his body, which is holding out well right now. If he can stay healthy, who’s to say he won’t end the year ranked No. 1 and perhaps close the gap even further with Federer in the Slam race. And who’s to say Kuerten isn’t right, and Rafa won’t win 15 French titles? All questions to ponder in the coming months and years.
But for now, this is about La Decima.
“It has been very special to me, and it’s true that it is unprecedented,” Nadal said. “Trust me, I’m very happy that I’m the one who did it. I’m very happy.”