By David Zakhodin
As we look back on the conclusion of a fortnight of tennis in Paris, we should all be asking ourselves the same question: was there ever really a doubt in our minds that this is how things would unfold? Following the conclusion of the Australian Open, the buzz revolved around how great it would be to see Rafa win one last French Open. When considering his age and history of injury, this was not an unreasonable conjecture. If Roger could come back from injury and grind his way to a Grand Slam title, then so could tennis’ second greatest on his best surface.
But as we observed at Roland Garros 2017, Rafa’s tenth victory appeared more like a foregone conclusion than an arduous grind. Whereas Roger had to win three five-set matches to capture the first Slam of the year, Rafa won the second without dropping a set. In fact, the Spaniard only lost 35 games, thus making this his most dominant win at the French Open yet (lost 41 in 2008). In what largely parallels the run of the Golden State Warriors to this year’s NBA title (sorry Cavs fans, you’re not coming back), Rafa looked unbeatable every step of the way to his fifteenth Grand Slam title. Even though we did not get the exhilarating semifinal against Djokovic that we saw in 2013 or the A+ Stan Wawrinka that we’ve seen win Grand Slam finals, we were able to once again appreciate the greatness of Rafa. The cross court angle backhands, the 99 mile-per-hour scorching out-of-position forehand down the line, the quickness to recognize a short ball and take time away from the opponent. All of these signature moments from Rafa’s resounding run at Roland Garros are only a small microcosm of why he was always bound to return to his winning ways in Paris.
If we look at tennis revisionist history, Rafa’s destiny was probably to win his fourteenth Grand Slam title at the 2014 Australian Open. He was world number one coming off a dominant season, Novak’s reign down under ended in the quarterfinal, and Pete Sampras was in attendance to award Rafa his record-tying trophy. However, fate would have it that Rafa would suffer a devastating back injury that prevented him from competing at his best in that matchup against Stan. It was difficult not to point at this moment and infer that injury would always be the biggest obstacle to arguably the most “physical” player in the history of the game. Even though Rafa would tie Sampras’ Grand Slam record at the following French Open, a three-year Grand Slam drought came with it. Whether it was watching him go away in the 2015 quarterfinal against Novak or seeing him abandon last year’s tournament with injury, there was plenty of reason to doubt Rafa’s ability to recapture magic at Roland Garros.
However, in this year’s clay court season, past performance was a precise indicator of future success. Rafa bulldozed through events like Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Madrid the way he had done during his prime, and he showed the field that no one could match him in a three out of five set contest. Perhaps the best match of the tournament was the five-set semifinal between Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray, but Rafa’s domination in each round was truly a sight to behold. It would not have been unreasonable for knowledgeable tennis fans to think that Stan could give Rafa a run for his money on Sunday. Betting against Rafa on clay is erroneous, but thinking that a three-time Grand Slam winner and former underdog champion on the very same court was capable of some fireworks is very fair. And if we factor in the possibility of nerves from Rafa should the match get tight and his claim on the Coupe des Mousquetaires be in question, this match could have gone to Stan in some simulations.
Nonetheless, as he has often done in French Open finals, Rafa shut the door from the start and only two short hours later would be customarily flailing his racquet in the air and falling in the clay in his signature celebration. Aside from having to speak broken French in countless interviews all afternoon, Rafa etched another historic chapter in his legacy once he hugged, lifted, and bit that beautiful trophy for the tenth time. Several years ago, Rafa’s beloved football club Real Madrid won its tenth Champions League title. Today it was his turn to celebrate “La Decima” as history was forever made on one of tennis’ biggest stages. While the future always remains uncertain for Rafa considering the topsy turvy nature of his career, he is now without a doubt second in the all-time standings. I personally kept Sampras in the conversation with him because of the amount of time Sampras spent as world number one, but having now won more Majors and been so dominant on clay, Rafa has only one man left to chase.
Now closing the book on the 2017 French Open, Rafa leaves Paris having returned to the world’s number two position. While it is difficult to predict what sort of form he will take to the grass where has struggled in recent years, what is certain is that the upcoming Championships Wimbledon will be up for grabs in a way that this French Open was not. One could argue that Wimbledon is Roger’s tournament to lose (currently the co-favorite), but with the Swiss Maestro taking a three month hiatus, it is impossible to guarantee he will pick up right where he left off in Miami. Novak is hardly at the forefront of the conversation following the departure of his mental fortitude in the French quarterfinal against Thiem, and Stan has never shown he can maintain a high level on grass deep into the second week at Wimbledon. Andy Murray regained some of his confidence in these past two weeks and will be eager to defend his title at Wimbledon, but the pressure of having to hang onto that top spot in the rankings will loom large.
Ultimately, the first half of the 2017 tennis season was one that brought back a pleasant form of nostalgia. Allegedly past their respective primes, Roger and Rafa have won the first two Majors of the season and interrupted the slew of less-than-satisfying Murray - Djokovic big match encounters. The last time that happened? 2010. With Rafa now building confidence after regaining the Major that is rightfully his, it will be interesting to see how he can carry a resume of four wins out of seven total finals appearances into the second half of the season. On the other hand, it is now Roger’s turn to defend his home court at Wimbledon. His Grand Slam lead once again narrowed to three, Roger will look to the grass where he last fell to rise once again. For now, though, it is Rafa’s turn to fall in the clay and celebrate a career milestone that some, including himself, at times doubted he would achieve.