PARIS – The ten commandments are the “Thou Shalt Not Mess Around” foundation of Western religion.
Ten Downing Street is a weighty symbol of British power.
A perfect “10” is said to be the ultimate measure in beauty or, for that matter, in gymnastics.
And, of course, TV’s Top Ten list drew ten million laughs. Letterman was a comedic genius. And Señor Rafa Nadal is a tennis genius, who today was seeking what the Spanish call La Decima, or in this case, his tenth French Open title. And why not? The morning headline was blunt: “Nadal: To Blow Away Wawrinka.”
And why wouldn’t he? Already this year he’d put his devastating 2016 injuries behind him. If 31 is old in tennis, don’t tell Señor Nadal. The Spaniard had already won three clay court titles this spring – and only when he was exhausted did he finally drop a match.
En route to the Paris final, he hadn’t lost a single set, and incredibly, he’d lost four games in a set just four times.
But hold on. Rafa may be the King of Clay, but Stan Wawrinka is hardly a peasant. The man has four macho nicknames (Stan the Man, the Stanimal, the Beast and the Bison) and three Grand Slam titles. He was hoping to become No. 2 – and he has one great coach – Magnus Norman.
Conventional wisdom noted that he has the best barrel chest in tennis and that he’d never lost a Grand Slam final. He tends to come up huge in big moments, and he can hurt tennis mortals with either his forehand or his crafted-in-tennis-heaven backhand.
“Right,” suggested the dreamers, “He might just have a shot today.” He’d just beaten Andy Murray, the No. 1 player in the world, two days before. So maybe Stan could take advantage of Rafa’s short balls, or hit the corners, or push him out of position, or avoid long rallies. Or maybe he might just follow the advice of Mary Carillo, who said the only way to beat Nadal was to “hit the lines on every shot.” Then again, maybe the Commander in Chief of the United States of America may stop tweeting.
Plus, let’s face it, all barriers are bound to be broken. Mt. Everest was sumited. The four-minute mile mark was shattered. Hank Aaron surpassed Babe Ruth.
There are many monumental challenges in sports. Just try to pedal through Paris’ cobblestones at the tail end of the Tour de France, or break Joe DiMaggio’s consecutive games hitting record or outrun Usain Bolt. Good luck.
But the toughest thing to do in tennis, and perhaps in all of sports, is to beat Nadal in five sets on Roland Garros’ fast center court on a blisteringly hot day.
He dominates this surface with a relentless zest – that’s his brand. He’s lost just two matches here – and only John Isner and Novak Djokovic have taken him to five sets.
In today’s French Open there was little doubt. Yes, in the third game of the first set, Wawrinka managed to gain a break point. Though so early in the match, Rafa noted it was a critical moment.
But Nadal easily prevailed and quickly settled into his familiar and ferocious comfort zone. His mindset was clear. He relished the scorching heat and sensed the moment. He stood in. His grunt was firm, his blasts were brutal. His forehand, as Patrick Mouratoglou suggested, was violent. His backhand displayed all of its recent improvement.
A cat-like mover, the man has seamless defensive skills. His patience impresses, his decision-making is all but flawless. When he is locked in, look out.
A reporter once asked, “Can we establish that there is an invisible law, like a law of gravity, a law of clay, that on clay even the most complete player has less chance than the first-class clay court specialist?”
And Rafa is first-class, wouldn’t you say?
Press row observers soon wondered whether it was best to characterize Rafa’s take-no-prisoners 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 win as a master class or as a simple beatdown.
One writer asked Stan, “Would you say that today tennis somehow has been cruel with you?” Wawrinka – a sensitive Swiss soul who had a panic attack in the locker room before last year’s US Open final and cried after losing this year’s Indian Wells final – replied, “I don’t know…Rafa’s an amazing fighter.” He added that he wasn’t exhausted from his marathon semi against Murray, “but it’s a mental thing. Everything is connected. If I hesitate in my mind, my legs will follow suit. That’s what happened…If you hesitate, for half a second, it’s too late…On clay there is always one ball coming back. There is always spin on the ball. There is always a different bounce…He creates a doubt that you cannot have if you want to beat him…Because of the way he’s moving, it’s even more difficult…He’s playing more aggressive, staying more close [to] the line…That’s clearly his best-ever play.”
After Rafa sprinted to a 6-2 first set win, he simply stepped up his play, turned the screw and continued to punish. This was a dismantling that hinted of humiliation. Wawrinka’s movement was leaden. Okay, when he got a lucky let cord he jokingly raised his hands and stirred the crowd. It was funny, but the sarcasm was painful.
More often, the frustrated Wawrinka swept at the lines. He banged his head and cracked his racket. Here was a broken man who walked in circles. All the while Nadal pounded. “Power, pace, precision – Nadal,” said Radio Roland Garros. Plus, he gave the 15,000-strong throng a signature shot for the highlight reel. On the run, he blasted a laser-like down-the-line forehand that whizzed by the befuddled Wawrinka. This was a ferocious Jordan dunk, or Federer unleashing a poetic crosscourt backhand, or Stef Curry burying a three-pointer from downtown.
But today wasn’t about a single shot. It was about an astounding body of work. Nadal’s gaining La Decima came in a match devoid of ten-sion due to a display that was simply decI-mating.
It reminded us that we still are in a golden time dominated by the big five players of our era. And it begged questions. Imagine if Rafa had held onto his lead in the fifth set of the Australian Open final. He would now have 16 Slams and Roger would still be at 17.
Plus, can Rafa, who is now No. 2, become No. 1? “Why not?” he answered. And just how many French Opens can this man collect? He said that twelve years ago he thought that in 2017 he’d be “fishing on my boat in Mallorca.”
All the while, Nadal remained the humble warrior that lifts our spirits. How many kings would say, as Rafa did today, “I have doubts every day. Doubts are good, because they give you the possibility to work with more intensity, with being more humble, and accepting that you need to keep working.”
What a perfectly gracious way to reflect after a win. So perfect that we’d give it a 10 – a perfect 10.