Norwegian Ruud stands in Nadal's way as Spaniard chases history

The fairytale ending would be a 14th French Open title for Rafa Nadal in possibly the last year of his career



Spain's Rafael Nadal (left) and Norway's Casper Ruud. — AFP
Spain's Rafael Nadal (left) and Norway's Casper Ruud. — AFP

By Sumit Chakraberty

Published: Sun 5 Jun 2022, 12:07 AM

For all his achievements, Rafael Nadal was an outlier at the Australian Open at the start of the year, coming off a six-month layoff after surgery to manage his chronic foot injury. But he made it to the final where he came back from two sets down to defeat World No.2 Daniil Medvedev for his 21st Grand Slam title, breaking his tie with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.

Ever since then, fans have been waiting to see Nadal take the tally to 22 titles on his favourite clay courts in Paris. But even his most ardent supporters would have all but given up hopes of witnessing another fairy tale campaign after he limped off in Rome where he lost in the Italian Open to Denis Shapovalov, just nine days before appearing at Roland Garros.

Djokovic won the Italian Open and appeared to be peaking at the right time to stop Nadal at the French Open, where they were drawn to meet in the quarterfinals. The world No.1, who beat Nadal in the 2021 semifinal, would be renewing his historic rivalry after being forced to miss the Australian Open for refusing to be vaccinated against Covid.

Before that classic encounter, however, Nadal had to get past rising Canadian star Felix Auger-Aliassime. It was a see-saw battle until Nadal prevailed in five sets — astoundingly only the second time he had been taken to that length in his 17 years at the French Open.

The physical toll of such an encounter favoured Djokovic in the quarterfinal. It became a familiar duel as one champion appeared on top and then the other, before Nadal prevailed in a fourth set tie-breaker.

This took him to a semifinal against Olympic champion Alexander Zverev, who had beaten Carlos Alcaraz, the Spanish 19-year-old, touted as a successor to Nadal. The six-foot-six-inch German, with a big first serve and huge wingspan, looks unstoppable when in full flow. But psychological chinks had prevented him from beating any of the big three — Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer — at a Grand Slam.

Zverev appeared more consistent and less fragile this time. But again he cracked at crunch time. He failed to serve out the first set and then led 6-2 in the tie-breaker before the 13-time French Open champion did one of his Houdini acts to win 10-8.

The second set too went to 6-6, but the last point proved to be the end of the road for Zverev. Chasing a ball on the last point, he went over on his ankle and had to abandon the match.

This wasn’t the way anybody would have wanted Nadal to enter the final. The semifinal had all the makings of being another version of the Australian Open final in which Nadal’s sheer will and tactical range eventually got the better of a taller, stronger, younger Medvedev. Unfortunately for Zverev, it was cruelly cut short.

What it does for Nadal, though, is an entry into the final in better physical shape than it would have been after another gruelling battle.

Nadal has already hinted this could be his final French Open because the degenerative bone disorder in his foot, first diagnosed when he was just 19, has been getting worse and more painful.

One would hope that he’s in the best physical condition possible at this last stage of his career when he appears on the Philippe-Chatrier court on Sunday, to do what he has done an incredible 13 times previously, starting with winning the title at his very first appearance in 2005.

The 23-year-old Norwegian who stands in his way, Casper Ruud, has made the Spaniard his role model to the extent that he trained at the Rafa Nadal Academy in Mallorca. Almost the same height as Nadal, he too relies on defence to extend rallies on clay and wins by counterpunching. It may be a fitting passing of the baton if he beats Nadal to become the first Norwegian to win a Grand Slam.

But the fairytale ending would be a 14th French Open title for Rafa Nadal in possibly the last year of his career.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru. Write to him at chakraberty@gmail.com


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