Way back when, the movie “Ocean’s Eleven” was a fun caper. But that was then. This spring our sport has been all about Tennis Eleven – Rafa’s quest for an eleventh French Open title. After all, Nadal has unleashed a dominance like no other. If Nadal again prevailed, he would tie the mark of Margaret Court for the most titles won at a single Slam.
But some didn’t exactly celebrate eleven. Venus Williams, whose clothes company is called EleVen by Venus, dismissed the importance of the number. “It’s one more than ten,” she said. Sloane Stephens, who long was No. 11, said it was no big deal when she got into the top 10.
But, folks, 11 is a big deal. You want some mysticism? Well, the No. 11 Tarot card stands for strength and justice. Aquarius is the 11th house and don’t forget the first manned spacecraft was Apollo 11.
Back on earth, football, soccer, cricket and field hockey teams all have 11 players. There’s always a sense of urgency about the number. The eleventh hour is the last of the day. Speaking of urgency, the first plane that crashed on 9/11 was American Airlines Flight 11 and, on a happier note, Nelson Mandela got out of jail on February 11th 1996 and went on to become the 11th President of South Africa. And yes, World War I was ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.
In contrast, there is no end in sight of Nadal’s battles for clay court triumphs. After all, when have we seen an athlete so connected with a single surface and a site for so long? Yankee Stadium is said to be “The House That Ruth Built.” Similarly, Stade Roland Garros was built due to the success of a quartet of French tennis players, the Four Musketeers. Arnold Palmer brought sparkle to Augusta. Jimmy Connors was the essence of the US Open, and Roger Federer won eight titles there.
Yes, Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in one game. Joe DiMaggio got a hit in 56 straight games, Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs and Nolan Ryan pitched seven no-hitters. But Rafa’s run – both on clay and specifically at Roland Garros – is, in all of sport, something else. In 15 years at Roland Garros, his record is 85-2. On clay, he’s 414-36. It’s big news when he loses a set. Only twice has he been pushed to five sets at Roland Garros.
It’s as if man and surface were meant for each other – movies and popcorn, spaghetti and meatballs. Rafa has a presence on clay like Ali had in a boxing ring. He looks the part. With intense expressions and bulging biceps, his body glistens. Caked with clay, his shoes, socks and tapes are mini-art works. He’s broad-chested like Stan Wawrinka and fleet like Diego Schwartzman. He’s a savvy tactician who doesn’t mind standing back in Versailles (or so it seems) to return serve. When you think you have Nadal beaten, think again. His defense-to-offense progression, along with his signature forehand, are two weapons that deflate the hearts of mighty men. But it is his intent, his focus and will that lift this competitor to another level. He brings an arsenal of shots (and don’t underestimate his backhand or dismiss the effect of his drop shots) to clay, which he fuses with a laser-like ferocity that only he and Jimmy Connors have had. It doesn’t matter whether it’s on the second point of the second game of the second set in the second round or on championship point – his “I must and I will have this” intent never wavers. His victories are physical and mental – and one-sided. He demolishes all before him, for this master of clay is a man of steel.
Roger Federer has basically given up on clay. Novak Djokovic is a diminished force. Rising Alexander Zverev still falls at Slams. It’s not surprising that, in hushed tones, people ask, “Should we even watch the French? Just hand Senor Nadal the trophy.”
But there is always some pretender, some handsome prince from a distant province who yearns for glory. Enter from Austria dreamer Dominic Thiem – young enough to still imagine, old enough to know how to do it. Like Rafa, Thiem has a broad chest and a mighty forehand. His one-handed backhand is one of the best. He’s suffered tough losses, but has built on his experience. He’s a workhorse who’s won more matches this year than anyone. The second best player on clay has reached two Roland Garros semifinals – he knows the stage. Now he’s reached his first ever Slam final. More impressive than anything else, Thiem has actually had significant wins over Rafa – three, to be exact. Yes, Nadalians noted that when Thiem beat the Spaniard in the 2017 Rome final Rafa was tired. And the Austrian’s win this spring came in the high altitude of Madrid. Grab an asterisk.
Not surprisingly, young Theim showed nerves early, losing the first six points. But the Austrian settled bravely and not only broke back to even the battle, at times he seemed to have the upper hand in long, brutal rallies that were filled with brilliant power, all-court variety and clay-friendly athleticism. However, Thiem’s serve was subpar. He won just 43 percent of his second serves and he had thee double faults. All the while, Rafa was Rafa. He attacked Thiem’s one-handed backhand. His intensity and brilliance puts opponents in a vice grip. They have to go for so much. Thiem suffered a wretched lapse – losing the tenth game of the first set at love. In a flash Rafa broke and was in ascendance. This was ominous. In 95 previous clay court matches, when he has won the first set, Rafa has won every time – incredible.
Nadal again broke early in the second set. But it was a sublime hold of serve in the fifth game that highlighted the Spaniard’s brilliance. Thiem – an emotional but workmanlike professional – raised his level with power shots off both wings. Now he had Rafa on the run, off-balance and lunging. But the Spaniard tapped his inner Houdini and hit a running forehand on the line and then backed that up with another outrageous forehand winner. Then Thiem countered with a devilish drop shot winner. Rafa retaliated with two “droppers” of his own.
Yes, Thiem played with grit and gained many – 17 – break points. His forehand can punish, his backhand has a pretty power. He should win here some day. But all knew that today he would be yet another Rafa victim. Nadal, can we say, was like a cobra slowly crushing his foe. He tells us, “I am human, I have emotions.” He is not perfect – he double-faulted once in the match. He allowed Thiem all those break points. His tightly taped finger cramped badly in the third set and he had to get medical help. And, goodness, it took him four nervous championship points to prevail and win 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 in 2:43.
But so what? There’s no one close to bumping the 32-year off of his high clay court perch. He stands alone, yet still weeps when he triumphs. So what else in sports can compare with this run of 11 French titles? Is he playing more aggressively then ever? How many more titles can he collect here? With his 17 Slams, will the No. 1 player in the world surpass Federer, with his 20 majors? At some point, can fans of Rafa insist he is the best of all time, in some measure, because he’s so dominant in one place? And just what makes Rafa so grand?
Justin Gimelstob told IT that the core of Rafa’s genius is “a perfect combination of physical skills, clay court genius, tactics, mental skills, desire, upbringing and coaching. He’s one of the greatest. He’s no different than Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt or Wayne Gretzky. He’s the best of the best, that rare lightning in a bottle.”
At his core, we asked, is there a love of the battle and the game? “You can’t do what he does,” replied Justin, “with all the training, physicality and all that pushing of yourself, without the desire to keep getting better. It’s like an unquenchable thirst for excellence – that can’t be anything other than a vision quest, an internal battle that demands, How much can you get out of yourself?”
Well, Rafa now has his 11 titles. Numerologists say that 11:11 signals a spirit presence. Others say you should make a wish when your clock hits 11:11. Our wish is that royal Rafa continues with the same passion and flair that has brought so much joy to so many for so long across the globe.