Erudite followers of Rafael Nadal have long appreciated that the eminent Spaniard has understood— perhaps better than anyone else— that ruling in the kingdom of tennis and becoming a champion of the highest order is entirely up to the individual. Nadal came upon us toward the end of his teens with a brand of exuberance and unbridled energy that was unlike anyone or anything the sport had yet seen. He matured during his twenties into a sublime match player, a dynamic physical force and a supreme competitor refusing to sell himself short, yet simultaneously displaying immense respect for his rivals and taking absolutely nothing for granted.
Over the course of his thirties, Nadal has widened his arsenal of aggression, wisened his ways of moving through matches more economically and efficiently, and lengthened his career well beyond what either he or his longtime legion of admirers ever thought would be possible. Time and again, often against almost insurmountable odds, sometimes staring straight into the cold face of reality, Nadal has confronted his ever present inner doubts as well as growing skepticism among the public, fellow players and the media who have continuously questioned his capacity to keep taking the highest honors in the game with a body that seems to be breaking down too often.
And yet, here he is again, victorious once more in the clay court capital of the world after a harrowing couple of weeks suffering from an ailing foot, quietly defiant about who he is and what he could accomplish, and above all an unassailable professional realizing another dream on the Parisian clay. He did all of this despite needing injections prior to every Roland Garros match to kill the considerable pain and numb his burdensome foot as he battles Mueller-Weiss Syndrome, a rare degenerative bone condition. When all was said and done over the past fortnight, it was Nadal who was the last man standing, Nadal who collected a 14th French Open crown and a 22nd Grand Slam title, Nadal who raised his sparkling Roland Garros career match record to 112-3.
He was once one of the youngest player to succeed in Paris but now the redoubtable Spaniard is the oldest French Open men’s champion at the age of 36. To put his towering accomplishment more fully into perspective, consider this: Nadal collected his first title at 19 in 2005. He captured eight more championships at that hallowed venue across his twenties, and now he has taken five more in his thirties. They call that enduring excellence. Some might even say that kind of success over such a long stretch is unimaginable.
Making his latest triumph all the more remarkable is that Nadal had come into Indian Wells unbeaten in 2022. He had played only one match in 2021 after losing to Novak Djokovic in the Roland Garros semifinals before his foot condition caused Nadal to shut his season down in August. Few were taking his chances seriously at the 2022 Australian Open, even after he won an ATP 250 warmup tournament in Melbourne. But, astonishingly, Nadal rallied from two sets down and 2-3, 0-40 in the third set against Daniil Medvedev in the Australian Open final, coming through strikingly in five exhilarating sets.
He then won Acapulco for his third title in a row before losing in the final at Indian Wells to Taylor Fritz. But he had cracked a rib in his semifinal against Carlos Alcaraz. That kept him out for about a month and severely disrupted his clay court schedule leading up to Roland Garros. He played only two tournaments and they did not go well. Beaten by Alcaraz in the quarterfinals of Madrid, he went to Rome and bowed out in the round of 16 against Denis Shapovalov in three sets. In the final set, Nadal was barely moving as his foot acted up flagrantly.
He then announced that his Spanish doctor would come to Paris but no one knew if the inimitable left-hander would be able to perform anywhere near the peak of his powers. Fortunately for this practical individual, his draw was initially kind. He cast aside the Australian Jordan Thompson, French wildcard Corentin Moutet and No 26 seed Botic Van De Zandschulp of the Netherlands without the loss of a set. He was not letter perfect in those three matches, yet his court mobility was surprisingly good.
But Nadal was stretched close to his limits in the round of 16 by No. 9 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime in an absorbing confrontation. The Canadian is, of course, coached by Rafa’s “Uncle Toni” Nadal, the man who essentially raised Rafa as a player and coached him for so long on the tour. Nadal and Auger-Aliassime had not met since Toni Nadal started coaching the Canadian. Uncle Toni chose to sit in a neutral location behind the court rather than with the Auger-Aliassime inner circle. He was glued to that seat through a long and gut-wrenching afternoon.
Nadal started inauspiciously, falling behind 5-1 in the first set, although he made it closer before conceding it. The next couple of sets were controlled completely by Nadal, who started finding openings to break the big server and found his range from the back of the court. But Nadal inexplicably lost his serve after being ahead 40-0 in the second game of the fourth set. Although he broke back, he still lost that set as the Canadian reestablished his attacking rhythm.
The match went to 3-3 in the fifth set. But at that propitious moment, Nadal summoned his finest tennis, taking 12 of 15 points and three consecutive games with a flourish, prevailing 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 in four hours and twenty one minutes. He was most sprightly in that contest at the very end. Nevertheless, Nadal fans were surely feeling consternation as he approached a quarterfinal confrontation with top seeded Novak Djokovic.
The Serbian is the only player to topple Nadal twice on the sacred grounds of Roland Garros, including a come from behind, four set semifinal victory a year ago on his way to a second French Open crown. He had gradually found his game and recovered his self conviction in recent weeks, losing narrowly to Alcaraz in a dandy of an encounter at Madrid in the penultimate round, then winning Rome without the loss of a set.
Confident after securing his sixth Italian Open title, Djokovic rolled through the first four rounds at Roland Garros without the loss of a set, and was particularly impressive in taking apart No. 15 seed Diego Schwatzman 6-1, 6-3, 6-3 in the round of 16. It seemed entirely possible that Djokovic could repeat his 2021 win over Nadal considering that he was so fresh and seemingly self assured, while Nadal had labored long and hard against Auger-Aliassime in their five set skirmish.
Nadal and Djokovic met in the evening, giving the Serbian an advantage according to some authorities because Nadal’s topspin artillery is more effective under a hot sun in daytime. But that theory ignored the fundamental fact that Nadal these days can flatten out the forehand and drive it up the line at blazing speeds with uncanny accuracy. Moreover, Djokovic’s serve was clearly diminished in the evening air.
Nadal came out of the blocks firing rockets off the forehand while Djokovic seemed willing to rely too much on defense—even on his own serve. The passivity of Djokovic at the outset was very costly as Nadal, scintillating and unrelenting off the forehand, took the first set convincingly 6-2 and built a 3-0, two service break lead in the second. The Spaniard had won 9 of 11 games and Djokovic looked dazed, subdued and out of sorts.
Be that at it may, the top seed found the inner spark he needed and at long last started hitting out freely and combating the No. 5 seed Nadal with thundering shots off both sides, blasting winners and taking the initiative away from Nadal. Although he had to fight through a few exceedingly long games, Djokovic secured the second set 6-4 with his much needed aggression off the ground, showing more animation in the process.
And yet, Djokovic’s did not maintain his controlled aggression and Nadal typically was not devastated by his second set defeat. The third set strongly resembled the first with Nadal holding the upper hand from the baseline and Djokovic playing reactive tennis.
But once again Djokovic asserted himself in the fourth set, opening up a 5-2 lead, serving for the set at 5-3. He had two set points in that critical ninth game but atypically sent an angled backhand into the net on the first and then was far too cautious with a backhand approach down the line on the second. Nadal passed Djokovic easily and eventually broke back before closing out a 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4) triumph over the defending champion.
Would Djokovic have prevailed in five sets had he been able to get there? On that particular night, I have my doubts that he would have succeeded. His coach, Goran Ivanisevic, later lamented that Djokovic’s body language was not up to his usual standard while Nadal carried himself more commandingly. I agree with that. Somehow, although this match had lasting implications for both players, it was Nadal who seemed to want it more. Djokovic wandered in and out of sets unpredictably, with his form fluctuating wildly. Nadal, even when the second set slipped from his grasp, maintained a high level throughout.
Perhaps Djokovic and Nadal realized that their quarterfinal was essentially a final. No one on the other half was going to beat either one of them, and although Sascha Zverev was a looming semifinal threat, he was unlikely to eclipse Djokovic or Nadal over best of five on that court.
The No. 3 seed Zverev had upended No. 6 Alcaraz in what many regarded as a significant upset. Alcaraz had beaten Zverev soundly in the final of Madrid. The 19-year-old Spaniard was viewed as the tournament favorite in the minds of many experts. He had survived a match point in the second round against his left-handed countryman Albert Ramos-Vinolas as the 34-year-old meekly netted a routine forehand. Alcaraz survived that strenuous test in five sets and then marched past Sebastian Korda (avenging a loss to the American in Monte Carlo), and Karen Khachanov in straight sets.
Zverev, too, had survived a match point against him in a second round, five set escape against Sebastian Baez. In his appointment against Alcaraz, Zverev set the tempo almost entirely in the first two sets, tightened up in the third, but came through 6-4 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (7), saving a set point in the tie-break at the end and winning the match with a devastatingly potent backhand down the line return winner.
That was a much needed victory for Zverev, his first ever against a top-ten ranked opponent at a major. It carried him into his meeting against Nadal in the semifinals with a restored belief in his game. They fought through a marathon first set under the roof. Zverev saved three set points at 4-5 on his serve. In the tie-break, the 6’6” German surged to 6-2, with four set points at his disposal. But Nadal aced him before Zverev serve-volleyed but missed the backhand first volley long. Then Nadal made a spectacular forehand passing shot winner on the full stretch before coaxing another backhand volley error from Zverev.
Somehow, Nadal, calling it “a miracle” later, took that tie-break 10-8. In the second set, with Nadal’s perspiration profuse and the humidity severe indoors, there were an astounding eight service breaks in the first nine games. Zverev served for the set at 5-3 but double faulted three times to squander that opportunity. Nadal was serving at 5-6 with a game point when Zverev rolled his ankle, screaming in anguish as he hit the ground. He would return to the court about ten minutes later on crutches to concede the match to Nadal ( 7–6 (8), 6–6, ret.).
They had played for over three hours without even completing two sets. Nadal would likely have needed to stay on court at least another hour and perhaps much longer if Zverev had won the second set. He was very fortunate to spare himself the extra wear and tear. He was able to save that energy for the final.
He then took advantage of a very good matchup against No. 8 seed Casper Ruud in the final. There was never much doubt about the outcome. Ruud’s forehand is a weapon against most opponents, but the left handed Nadal broke it down with his razor sharp crosscourt backhand, and pummeled away with his whirlwind topspin forehand to exploit Ruud’s weaker backhand wing. It was a nightmare for the Norwegian to face Nadal for the first time in an official match after playing many practice sets with the Spaniard at Rafa’s academy.
Nadal rolled to 2-0 in the first set, played a poor game on his serve in the third game with two double faults and a game closing forehand unforced error, but then broke back for 3-1. He closed out that set 6-3 before falling behind 3-1 in the second. From there he was unstoppable and Ruud looked beleaguered and outclassed. Nadal regally swept eleven games in a row to close out the account.
The Spaniard has now widened his lead over Djokovic and Roger Federer by virtue of securing his 22nd major. The Serbian and the Swiss both have amassed 20 Grand Slam titles apiece. Although Federer plans a return in the autumn, he is almost surely not going to win another major. Djokovic, of course, is another story altogether. After his somewhat perplexing performance against Nadal in Paris, he will be immensely eager to hold onto his crown at Wimbledon.
Djokovic has been victorious on his last three visits to the All England Club (2018, 2019 and 2021), and has won Wimbledon six times altogether. He will be the favorite this year. With Zverev dealing with torn lateral ligaments in his right foot, he could well miss Wimbledon. Medvedev is barred from competing there as a Russian player, as is Andrey Rublev. But Nadal surprised a lot of people who speculated that he would skip Wimbledon by saying he has a plan that maybe, just maybe, might allow him to pursue a third title on the British lawns and his first since 2010.
He will start a new treatment and do radio frequency ablation to the nerve in his foot. If the treatment works, Nadal will indeed be back at Wimbledon; if not, he would consider having surgery, which might lead him toward retirement.
Never before in his sterling career has Nadal been halfway to a calendar Grand Slam because he had not won the Australian and French Opens in the same year. So his motivation to play Wimbledon has been heightened by his stunning title run in Paris. If he does come to Wimbledon healthy, it would still be a tall order for the Spaniard to win there. No doubt he would be a strong contender, but would he beat Djokovic on the grass?
I doubt it, although to rule it out would be foolish. In their two Wimbledon clashes, Djokovic stopped Nadal in a four set 2011 final and then narrowly ousted his old rival in a five set semifinal four years ago. If they do meet, Nadal would have the opportunity to even his riveting career head to head series with Djokovic at 30-30. But Nadal has not defeated Djokovic on a surface other than clay since the 2013 U.S. Open.
The pursuit of historical supremacy may not be over for these two icons—as long as Nadal can overcome the severity of his foot ailment. But even in the worst case scenario if the Spaniard is forced to retire later this year, he now has put himself in an enviable position. He has won 22 of 30 major finals across his career. Both Djokovic and Federer are 20-11. Critics would point out that Nadal is 14-0 in French Open finals but only 8-8 combined at the three other majors. That is a valid point, but the Spaniard’s clay court genius can’t be held over him either. Meanwhile, Djokovic is 9-0 in Australian Open finals on his favorite hard courts but only 3-6 in U.S. Open finals. Go figure.
To be sure, Nadal has claimed 63 of his 92 overall career titles on the clay, but the fact remains that he has matched Djokovic and surpassed Federer by winning all four majors at least twice. Djokovic has spent much longer as the No. 1 ranked player in the world than either of his chief rivals, finishing seven years at the top and 373 weeks compared to five years for Nadal and 209 weeks.
The debate will linger. But on this point there can be no dispute: Nadal has mastered the clay the way no one else in modern tennis history has ruled on any surface. His career match record on the dirt is an astounding 474-45.
The feeling grows that someday Nadal will reflect on his 2022 Roland Garros win and cherish it more than any of his other Paris victories. This one was about the size of his heart, his incomparable discipline and the depth of his determination rather than forehands and backhands.
Brazilian Rising Star Joao Fonseca Waives College Eligibility To Turn Pro
One of Brazil’s most promising young tennis players has made the bold decision to abandon a dream of his to play college tennis in America to turn pro.
17-year-old Jaoao Fonseca was committed to playing college tennis at the University of Virginia but says professional tennis has called him in a way he couldn’t refuse. The rising star has played just two Tour-level events so far in his career and is currently ranked 343rd in the world.
At last week’s Rio Open, he became the second-youngest player after Alexander Zverev to reach the quarter-finals of an ATP 500 event since the category was introduced. In his home tournament, the Brazillian beat Arthur Fils and Cristian Garin before losing to Mariano Navone.
“It was an incredibly tough decision for me and my family as I have been dreaming about living a college life in Charlottesville, playing the sport that l love with a wonderful team and coach, but, in the last months, professional tennis called me in a way that I simply couldn’t say no,” Fonseca wrote in a statement published on Instagram.
“Although I will not be attending school, I think it is an extremely valuable and viable path for young players in their way to professional careers,” he added.
Fonseca has already enjoyed success on the junior circuit. Last year he was runner-up in the doubles tournament at the Australian Open boy’s event. Then at the US Open, he won his first Grand Slam junior title in singles. He is also a former ITF Junior World No.1 and is currently ranked second in the standings.
The youngster has already been hailed by compatriot Beatriz Haddad Maia, who is currently ranked 13th on the WTA Tour. Speaking to reporters at the San Diego Open, she has offered her support to Fonseca if he needs it.
“João is a nice person. He has a great future, if he keeps working hard and keeps doing what he’s doing. I think he has a very aggressive mentality and tennis.” She said.
“We sometimes text each other, but not that much. But I’m always following.. not only him.. but the Brazilians. I’m proud of what he’s doing. He has a long way and he needs to understand that it’s a marathon, it’s not a 100 meter race.’
“Tennis has its ups and downs. I wish him all the best, for sure. I’ll be here whenever he wants. I’m happy with what he’s doing.”
Fonseca played at the Chile Open this week but lost in the first round to Thiago Agustin Tirante.
Injured Alcaraz Pulls Out of Rio Open After Two Games
A sprained ankle a couple of minutes into his debut at the Rio Open forced top seed Carlos Alcaraz to abandon his match against Thiago Monteiro
For world no. 2 Carlos Alcaraz, this year’s Rio Open lasted two games: the Spanish champion had to retire on the score of 1-1 in the first set during his first-round match against Brazilian Thiago Monteiro due to a sprained right ankle suffered in the second point of the match.
In an accident somewhat reminiscent of the terrible one suffered by Zverev in the semi-final of Roland Garros 2022, Alcaraz’s right foot “got stuck” in the clay as he returned towards the center of the court after returning from the left, and he immediately flew to the ground dropping his racket. The Spaniard immediately asked for a medical time-out, but as soon as he took off his shoe it was immediately clear that his ankle had already swollen.
After having a tight bandage applied, Alcaraz tried to continue the match, but just two games later he understood that it was not possible to continue so he shook hands with his opponent, abandoning the Brazilian tournament.
The match was played on a very heavy court due to the rain that had fallen heavily during the day. The organizers had been forced to cancel the daytime session and play could only begin around 7.30 pm local time, after the courts had remained under pouring water all day.
Alcaraz told the press present in Rio: “I think these things happen, especially on clay. It wasn’t a problem with the court, I hurt myself in a change of direction and this happens on this type of surface. I went back into the match to see if I could continue or not. I spoke to the physiotherapist on the court and we decided, together, that I would continue to see if the ankle would improve. It didn’t happen, so we preferred to be cautious and withdraw as a precaution.”
Considering that Alcaraz left the court on his own two feet and managed to wobble through a couple of games after the injury, it is quite likely that the injury he suffered is much less serious than the one that kept Alexander Zverev away from tournaments for over seven months. However, it will be necessary to verify whether it is just a sprain or whether tendons or ligaments have been involved. If this were to be the case, the prognosis could turn out to be longer, and this is happening less than two weeks before the start of the Sunshine Double in Indian Wells and Miami.
The Spaniard is scheduled to play an exhibition in Las Vegas on 3rd March against Rafael Nadal: it will be decided in the next few days whether to withdraw as a precaution for the first Masters 1000 of the season in Indian Wells.
Can Jannik Sinner dodge the morning-after syndrome?
Very few players have managed to follow up their first triumph in a Major. Hewitt is the last new Grand Slam champion to immediately win an ATP title. Nadal, Djokovic and Federer all misfired, can Jannik Sinner do better?
By Roman Bongiorno
“The morning-after syndrome,” as they call it. The list of great champions who have suffered from it – Carlos Alcaraz, Juan Martin del Potro, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka, Andy Murray, is impressive. Some of the most illustrious names in our sport, the most successful ever. Yet, even for those who are legends, the match immediately after their first Grand Slam triumph is often an insurmountable hurdle.
The very young Spanish phenomenon, born in 2003, was the latest striking example. After winning the 2022 US Open and becoming the new world No. 1, Alcaraz managed to win just one set in his next two matches: he lost 6-7 6-4 6-2 in the Davis Cup against Felix Auger Aliassime, who was definitely on fire in that period, and was inflicted a 7-5 6-3 defeat by veteran David Goffin in his first match at the ATP 500 in Astana.
Mentally, it’ not easy. The most important triumph of one’s life, immediately to be put aside. And go back to work. The media are quick to pounce on any slip, headlines hinting at signs of a career already over: “it’s gone to his head”, “he has made his money” etc.
Less than a year later, Carlos Alcaraz was once more a Grand Slam champion, beating Novak Djokovic in the final at Wimbledon.
Just think of tennis legends such as Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, who fell victims to this serious syndrome. The former, after his triumph at Roland Garros 2005, stepped back on court on the green grass of Halle, losing in 3 sets to the world number 147 German Alexander Waske: 4-6 7-5 6-3. For many, that was a disastrous defeat foreshadowing a future that would not be as bright as it had seemed. Rafa told another story, by winning another 21 Grand Slam titles, on every surface.
The Serbian, on the other hand, thrived on the hard courts of Melbourne, just like Jannik Sinner. In 2008, after winning the title, he was engaged in Davis Cup against Russia. He did not finish his rubber against Nikolay Davydenko and retired at the beginning of the fourth set while trailing 2 sets to 1. In his first ATP tour appearance, in Marseille, after brushing aside Ivan Dodig, he was ousted in three sets by Gilles Simon. Over the following 15 years Novak Djokovic went on to become the has become the most successful player ever.
What about Roger Federer? After lifting the trophy won at Wimbledon in 2003, he moved to the home clay of Gstaad. He survived the morning-after syndrome after a fierce but victorious struggle in the first round with the Spaniard Marc Lopez, ranked No.190. Then he cruised till the final, but was defeated in a five set hustle 5-7 6-3 6-3 1-6 6-3 by Jiri Novak.
The morning-after did not spare Juan Martin del Potro. After his stunning victory over Federer at the 2009 US Open, he set foot on an ATP tennis court three weeks later in Tokyo. It was Edouard Roger Vassellin, 189th in the world, who spoiled the party, neatly defeating the Argentinian in two sets, 64 64.
Even “Ice man” Bjorn Borg, the man without (apparent) emotions, focused only on tennis and winning, lost the first match after his success at Roland Garros 1974. He was defeated in the first round in Nottingham by world No. 71 Milan Holecek from Czechoslovakia. Over the next years he definitely made up for that impasse on English lawns.
A rare bird at last, and not by chance does it come from Australia, a land which is ever so rich in unique species. Lleyton Hewitt, who in 2001 after steamrolling Pete Sampras in the US Open final, immediately won his next matches, two singles rubbers in the Davis Cup against Jonas Bjorkman and Thomas Johansson, and then went on to win in Tokyo by beating Michel Kratochvil in the final.
Jannik Sinner has been building up his success on gruelling feats. Sure he’s eager to be back on the Dutch indoor courts of Rotterdam where he enjoyed a brilliant run last year, only surrendering to Danil Medvedev in the final. Just one year ago the Russian seemed an impossible opponent to defeat. Now, in the last 4 challenges, Jannik has beaten him 4 times. The last one, in the final of the Australian Open.
Rotterdam could have been the stage for a rematch, but Medvedev has pulled out of the tournament. Jannik Sinner appears as a favourite, and is vying to close in on that third place of the rankings currently held by Daniil.
Jannik has set out on his mission. But even if he were to be defeated in the first round by an opponent ranked beyond the top 200, no one should dare cry failure. Italy at last has a Grand Slam winner, and he is not to be downplay him in case of first defeats.
Translated by Kingsley Elliot Kaye
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