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No One Will Ever Do What Rafael Nadal Has Done

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Predictions about whether a feat can or cannot be replicated have always struck me as naive. Earth will be around for a while and, at least until we write ourselves out of its story, will host billions and billions more humans, shaped and sized in novel ways, some of which make them particularly suited to specific tasks, such as hitting the shit out of a tennis ball. Why would you bet on the small band of the past—in this case, about a century of tournament history—rather than the huge swath of future that lies ahead of us? And yet, I’d bet on human extinction arriving before another person won the French Open 10 times.

What would that hypothetical person look like? Maybe you’d give him a build thicker than any previous pro—as if he stumbled into tennis on the way to football tryouts—just to see how that would play out. Maybe this would allow him to rip the racket head so fast as to revolutionize the spin that could be inflicted upon a tennis ball. Maybe he’d have the brazen foot speed to dig up every ball, and the stamina to sustain this chase for hours. Maybe you’d wed this defense to fearless shot-making. Maybe he’d be resilient enough to recover from all the unavoidable wear and tear that this brutal style incurs, and create the illusion of endless youth. Maybe you’d give him a kind of unrelenting focus that is totally alien to the lived experience of most humans; maybe it would be so intense that, across a career subdivided into discrete units of tennis points, he never let his attention lapse for even one. Maybe you’d put the racket in his left hand—even if he’s a righty by birth—just to make the matchups that much more aggravating. Maybe you’d make him ritually pick his wedgie and straighten his locks before every serve.


The result looks familiar. “As I like to say, if I can do it, someone else can do it,” said Nadal, lying, out of of modesty. “I don’t like to think of myself as someone special. But you need the right ingredients, the right circumstances to win 10 French Opens.” Strain the imagination and it is still very, very difficult to conceive of a superior mix of ingredients. What other garnish could you add to this rich excess: 145 mph aces? Once a Rafa-servebot hybrid crawls into the world and makes its way to Paris, it’ll be time to revisit this take, but until then, feel comfortable betting on the Spaniard, who is now 79-2 at Roland Garros—one of the freakish, sustained feats of our time—and now has 10 titles here, more than any player has ever racked up at any one major.

Of those 10, three were won without dropping a single set, and 2017 was one of those immaculate sprints. No recent Grand Slam run has felt as straightforward or inevitable as this one, which saw Nadal lose only 35 games total; only Bjorn Borg has ever dropped fewer games en route to a best-of-five major title. Even when confronted with Stan Wawrinka, the No. 3 seed, a feral slugger who won all three of his previous Grand Slam finals, Rafa gave us his seventh straight rout, yet another flatline of a scoreline: 6-2, 6-3, 6-1.

So one-sided was this match that the highlights would hardly hold your attention: Just picture lots and lots of points where Wawrinka tried to bash his way through a brick wall and eventually found the attempt futile. The Swiss hit 29 unforced errors and only 19 winners, hardly the best testament to his aggressive style, and never made much of a dent on Nadal’s serve. The champion won most points handily and without having to dig too deep into his arsenal, but this blind forehand slap on the run will find its way into career retrospective highlight reels:

What we saw over the last two weeks has been a nearly annual ritual since 2005, and barring catastrophic injury, it isn’t going anywhere soon. At 31, Rafa is not what he was at 21; revisit the highlights and this man wouldn’t be confused for his younger, even more yoked, faster self. But it is still more than good enough to dominate the current ecosystem. So long as he keeps finding ways to return to the tour healthy, and so long as the younger generation continues to struggle under the onerous slab of talent that is the Big Four, these titles will still be Nadal’s to win (and bite). Ten is a nice, clean number, but it is hardly a finish line unto itself.

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