Has there been a player so good at his core competence for so long as Rafael Nadal is at his? A few names come to mind: Michael Phelps in the pool, Usain Bolt on the track, Sergey Bubka in the field, Michael Schumacher behind the wheel. Why, comparing apples to apples, Roger Federer on grass. But while, arguably, Phelps, Bolt, Bubka and Schumacher fulfill one condition (so good), and Federer the other (so long), none of them fuses dominance and endurance as emphatically as Nadal. In 14 years, he has won 11 Grand Slams on Parisian clay, racking up an 86-2 win-loss record at Roland Garros (Federer is 91-11 at Wimbledon). This year, the 32-year-old Spaniard lifted the French Open having dropped only one set along the way.
In the final, he faced the talented Dominic Thiem, one of the hardest hitters in contemporary tennis. Nadal vanquished him in three. Playing Nadal on clay is like playing against the practice wall — it’s a losing battle. Which is not to say that watching Nadal at the French Open is tedious. His dominance masks his supreme struggle against self. The punishing physicality of his game — hitting and retrieving — has chipped away at his body. The knees are creaking, the foot has been scarred, the wrist had to fixed. If to watch Federer is to watch effortlessness, to witness Nadal is to witness someone give it all out there with a fatalistic zeal and then some more.
But even Nadal, at 32, can’t keep doing this. It’s likely that he will give Wimbledon a pass. It will be understandable, though. Like Federer, who has been skipping the French Open since 2016, he also needs to pick and choose his battles. The injury-ravaged Novak Djokovic is likely to follow suit. In the next couple of years, therefore, we won’t see the big three/four slugging it out against each other at the Slams as frequently as we have seen. But, at least, we will get to see them, fit and fresh. That’s an encouraging thought.