Tennis

Nadal roars back to King of Clay throne

Rafael Nadal is back on top of the tennis world after a long, hard year.
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Richard Evans

Richard Evans has covered tennis since the 1960s, reporting on more than 150 Grand Slams. He is author of 15 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." Follow him on Twitter.

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PARIS

Why does a man who has just won a great victory throw himself onto the court and then sob uncontrollably into his towel?

SLAM DANCE

Take a look back at each of Rafael Nadal's 13 Grand Slam titles.

We who only watch and wonder will never know. Only people who cycle first up the Champs Elysees in the Tour de France, flatten a heavyweight boxer in a world title fight or climb Mount Everest really understand what strain it takes on nerve and sinew to achieve these things.

And Rafael Nadal is one of them. The man who hates to lose a point, let alone a match, lost the crown he regarded as his own here last year to Robin Soderling, and Sunday he made the Swede pay with an awesome display of clay-court tennis to regain that crown in front of his Queen, Sofia. Even she, applauding enthusiastically, could not really comprehend what emotions were flooding through her country’s proudest sporting son.

The score line looks so neat: 6-4, 6-2, 6-4. But it was never that easy and, in any case, it wasn’t about this one match. It was about two weeks of intense concentration and physical endeavor in a sport that allows no support in the heat of battle. Top athletes from team sports comment time and again on how lucky they are to have a teammate to pass to — or even blame — when the going gets tough. Even a golfer has a caddie to turn to.

Not so the tennis champion. He has to do it all by himself — lungs bursting, head spinning, arm aching, no matter. Just get on with it. And when things go wrong, work it out for yourself.

This is why the emotion comes pouring out when match point is won. One might expect the loser to cry — and sometimes they do, like Andy Murray after losing to Roger Federer in the final of the Australian Open, or like Federer did himself when he lost to Nadal a year earlier. But Federer can cry after winning just as Rafa did Sunday. It’s a release. It’s very human.

STAY ON SERVE

 
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But some will say Nadal’s ability to reach and return blistering shots is inhuman. And it was this ability that broke Soderling’s challenge which, for an hour, had been worthy of a Grand Slam final. The tall Swede was hammering his forehand to such good effect that he had two break back points in the eighth game of the first set, and more importantly, 15-40 and two more break points against the Spanish serve in the second game of the second set.

“Maybe, if he had been able to win one of those, it could have changed,” said Magnus Norman, the former French Open finalist whose coaching has transformed Soderling’s career. But then being a sensible Swede, Norman added, “But even then Nadal would probably have won.”

The frank assessment was absolutely correct. Nadal wanted to reclaim this title like he has wanted few things in his life.

Losing the crown had been an affront to his considerable Spanish pride, and the way he dealt with those break points laid down statements of intent that were not going to be denied. He saved the first with an ace and then, on the third, he tore around the court, making impossible gets, returning a smash, racing up to reach a short return and then flinging himself back across court to come up with a winning drop volley. The crowd was on its feet and, soon after, the sun popped out from behind a blanket of cloud to see what was going on. It was worth a look.

It is always worth watching a great champion in action. But Nadal is not going to be drawn into deciding whether he is the greatest clay-court player of all time.

“I am not so arrogant,” he said with his disarming smile. “Maybe that is for you to do decide when I end my career.”

But if he wins a sixth French Open title here next year to draw alongside Bjorn Borg, who won six titles over eight years (after opting out of two to play World Team Tennis), Nadal, who now has five in six years, will be laying a solid claim to that unprovable acclamation of The Best of All Time.

He even tried to deflect any suggestion that this title was more special than some others, like his 2008 Wimbledon crown, but he did emphasize how difficult the last year had been with a series of injuries, one of which forced him to default at the Australian Open. And he maintained that the fact he has now returned to No. 1 in the world in place of Federer also was a secondary consideration.

“It was not No. 1 I was thinking about when I was crying under the towel — it was this,” he said, reaching out to touch the gleaming Coupe des Mousqetaires. “I was thinking of all the hours of hard work — all thinking and planning and working to win this title.”

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There were obviously moments when he was afraid he would never be able to return to the level of dominance he had enjoyed during those five triumphant years in Paris.

“Of course I had doubts,” he said. “Everyone has doubts. I am not an exception. At home in December ... it was not always easy.”

It was not always easy Sunday, but there always was going to be only one winner. From the moment he started destroying the field in Monte Carlo in April, beating good players by humiliating scores like 6-1, 6-0, it was clear it would take a herculean effort and a moment of real inspiration to beat him on clay.

Poor Soderling, who took his defeat well and managed to smile at appropriate moments as Nikki Pietrangeli, a two-time winner here in times of yore, handed out the trophies, was never going to be the man to rise to the required heights. No disgrace there because those heights are very high indeed.

So Nadal heads for grass, on which he will be practicing at the Queen’s Club in London by Monday afternoon, having cleaned up the clay-court season so effectively that only two players — Ernests Gulbis and Nicolas Almagro — managed to take a set off him in four tournaments.

Get out your hankies. There’s more to come.

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