PARIS — Rafael Nadal had done what no other player has done, and it could be a long time, if ever, for someone to duplicate his mastery.
On a hot Sunday afternoon bathed in sunshine at the French Open — Nadal kind of weather, to be sure — the Spaniard became the first player in the Open Era to win the same Grand Slam title 10 times in his career.
The 31-year-old Nadal offered no mercy to Stan Wawrinka, the 2015 French Open champion, in putting on a strategic and impenetrable clay court clinic to capture his 15th overall Grand Slam title 6-2, 6-3, 6-1.
He would win this French Open without even dropping a set, a distinction he also achieved in hoisting the trophy in 2008 and 2010. In all, he only lost 35 games during these two weeks in Paris.
Nadal, who dropped to the court and covered his eyes when Wawrinka netted the final shot, saved the one break point he faced in the third game of the first set. It was the only opportunity he presented the Swiss in the 2 hour, 5 minute match.
“The feeling that I have here is impossible to describe, impossible to compare to other places,” Nadal said on court after the victory, brushing away tears. “The adrenaline and nerves I feel on this court I can’t describe. This is the most important event in my career, without a doubt.”
The significance of the achievement was not lost on anybody, and French Open organizers were prepared to commemorate the moment in grand style in the event Nadal succeeded. There was a film prepared with footage of all of his French Open victories, and with some quick editing it even included Sunday’s match point.
Nadal basked in his moment. Prior to the playing of the Spanish National anthem, banners were unfurled at the top of the stadium, one making note of his 10th win — known as “La Decima” — and one with a bold and big message for the champion: “BRAVO RAFA.”
Wawrinka lauded his opponent to the crowd during the ceremony, saying, “What you are doing in tennis and our sport is just unbelievable.”
But that wasn’t even the big reveal of the ceremony, which came when his uncle, Toni Nadal, who has coached Rafa since he was 3, was given the honor of delivering a life-sized replica of the French Open trophy for him to take home. Players normally get a junior-sized replica of the trophy they’ve won, but this time around called for something far more grandiose.
“For me, every Roland Garros have been very important for itself,” Nadal said. “You have some ones that are more special than others, obviously, but every one have been unique. Yeah, I enjoyed every one. Is true that this one is gonna be one of the more special for the number, for what happened on the ceremony after the final, for so many things. And because I am 31 already and not a kid anymore.
“Because of the level of tennis and accepting that I have [had] problems, physical problems for the last period of time, that’s an important one,” he added.
Nadal has never lost a final at the French Open. His 79-2 record in Paris is the best in French Open history. His only two losses at Roland Garros came in the fourth round in 2009 and the quarterfinals in 2015.
The magnificence of what Nadal achieved in winning on Sunday magnifies in context to where he was situated in his career just a year ago, when a left wrist injury forced him out of the French Open ahead of a scheduled third-round match. He didn’t play again until the Rio Olympics, and then in mid-October he shut down his season because of the injury.
Nadal’s game is all about the physical — every ball struck appears to penetrate from every muscle in his core. Almost from his arrival, pundits predicted he’d have an incredible, but short career. No one was surprised when he started to have multiple knee problems by his mid-20s.
But it was an underestimation of Nadal’s heart and desire if anyone expected him to go away quietly, and the wrist injury wasn’t going to end his career either. Basically, they’re going to have to drag Nadal off the court in a stretcher until he decides of his own accord it’s time to go.
The wondering as to what shape he would return to the game this year was answered loud and clear, and quickly. At 31, he was even better than ever. The real Rafa Nadal was alive and well.
“For sure he’s playing the best he’s ever played,” said Wawrinka, who lost his first Grand Slam final in four played on Sunday. “But not only here. I think since the beginning of the year, you can see he’s playing more aggressive, staying more close from the line. That’s why he’s winning so much again.”
Nadal would journey to the Australian Open final, where he held a lead over Roger Federer in the fifth set before just being edged out of the title.
And by the time his beloved clay court season arrived he was primed for winning, most especially a record 10th French Open trophy.
“It’s been magical all the things that happened in this tournament for me,” said Nadal, sitting beside the trophy.