Victory belongs to the most tenacious.” — Inscription on the stadium wall over Court Philippe-Chatrier.

If facing his boyhood idol in his first major final wasn’t daunting enough, Casper Ruud passed by a steel statue of Rafael Nadal, a daily reminder that the living legend had won an astounding 13 French Open titles. As a kid, Casper was so smitten with Nadal that he once cried after his hero lost a match. Later he modelled his heavy topspin game after the King of Clay’s and trained at Nadal’s tennis academy in Mallorca, Spain, where he never won a practice match between them.

READ: I hope to keep going, Nadal says after 14th French Open crown

While Ruud had mental hurdles to overcome, Nadal suffered physically. Besides a variety of tennis injuries during his 20-year pro career, he endured chronic severe pain from a congenital foot disease, a condition known as Muller-Weiss syndrome. When he limped off the court after losing in the Rome third round, playing Roland Garros appeared in jeopardy. Following his French Open quarterfinal victory, he confided, “I always have in my mind this could be the last match of my career here.”

Leaving no stone unturned, Nadal had his physician travel with him to Paris to treat him after each match. He needed a pre-final injection to kill the tormenting pain, which made his foot feel “asleep.” No wonder Nadal said, “I’d rather have a new foot than win here.”

The humble Spaniard always downplays his chances to win Grand Slam titles, despite a record 21 going into this fortnight. A brutal draw, though, had to worry even his most ardent fans. World No. 1 Novak Djokovic and talented No. 9 Felix Auger-Aliassime were placed in his quarter and teenage sensation and No. 6 Carlos Alcaraz and No. 3 Alexander Zverev in his half. Regrettably, the logjam of stars was caused by the appallingly ignorant Roland Garros administrators who seeded by far the greatest player in clay-court history an absurd No. 5. That imbalance left the bottom half of the draw much weaker, a scenario that, ironically, saved the 36-year-old Nadal in the Sunday final.

For the first time in his storied career, Nadal hadn’t won a clay title heading into Roland Garros. Even so, he had a huge reservoir of experience and confidence to weather crises. The first came in the fourth round against Auger-Aliassime, a 21-year-old Canadian brimming with power, speed and athleticism. Nadal had played only two career five-set matches on the terre battue , outlasting rocket-serving John Isner in 2011 and arch-rival Djokovic in 2013. In contrast, FAA lost a five-set heartbreaker to No. 2 Daniil Medvedev at the Australian Open.

Despite the 15-year disadvantage, the ageless Spaniard, who has said he enjoys fighting even more than winning, nearly broke the Canadian’s serve in the second game of the fifth set. Nadal nailed the only break he needed in the eighth game when he converted his second break point with an outstretched backhand approach winner down the line for a 5-3 lead. In the next game, he smacked a forehand crosscourt winner to clinch the 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 triumph. The gruelling battle lasted 4 hours and 21 minutes.

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Gracious in defeat: “He showed why he’s a great champion. You know, staying there mentally tough and finishing the match the way he did. Congrats to him and his team. No doubt he deserved it… I lost to a better player today,” Novak Djokovic said, after losing to Nadal in the quarterfinals.

 

Next came Djokovic, who boasted seven wins on clay over Nadal and the distinction as the only player to beat him twice at Roland Garros. The least beloved of the Big Three, Djokovic saw his popularity drop still more when he refused to be vaccinated and was deported from Australia without competing in the major where he had won a record nine times. His comeback picked up momentum when he reached the Belgrade final and Madrid semis before regaining his elite form in Rome. There he defeated Auger-Aliassime, Ruud, and Stefanos Tsitsipas, all in straight sets.

The Serb coasted into the French Open quarterfinals, demolishing everyone, including ultra-consistent No. 15 Diego Schwartzman 6-1, 6-3, 6-3. The first match between two superstars each owning at least 1,000 career wins, 300 Grand Slam wins, and 20 major titles had historical implications. The winner would also rate as the odds-on favourite to capture yet another Grand Slam crown. The 59th meeting between Nadal and Djokovic, a men’s record, won’t rate as a classic, but it proved suspenseful and well-played.

When the two giants met at Roland Garros a year ago, Nadal seized the opening set before losing in four sets. This encounter started similarly with the Spaniard notching two breaks to grab the first set 6-2. After Nadal broke twice more for a 3-0 second-set lead, the match took a dramatic turn.

Rafa strangely made three unforced errors to break himself for 3-1. Novak capitalised by accelerating his second serve returns from 72 mph in the first set to a sizzling 84 mph. He converted his fifth break point chance to even the score at 3-3, despite becoming enraged with comments from a pro-Nadal spectator. When Djokovic broke for a third time to take the second set 6-4, he had his mojo back.

But the momentum abruptly shifted again as Nadal’s superior shot selection — no one plays better percentage tennis — gave him the pivotal third set 6-2. Critically, he struck 83% of his first groundstroke with his deadly forehand on his service games.

But Djokovic was far from finished. He surged ahead 5-2 in the fourth set. With the partisan crowd chanting “Rafa! Rafa!” the revitalised Spaniard broke serve with an inside-out forehand winner to cut the gap to 5-4. “There are a lot of life lessons you can learn from Nadal,” said Tennis Channel analyst Jim Courier, referring to his resilience.

Three service holds later, a tiebreaker entertained the roaring crowd. Nadal streaked ahead 6-1, thanks in part to two forehand winners. Djokovic staved off three match points — stroking a crosscourt backhand winner, forcing a forehand error, and belting a forehand return of serve winner. On his fourth match point, Nadal ended a long rally with a backhand winner down the line for a 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4) victory.

While Djokovic can be contentious and edgy during matches, he is invariably gracious in triumph or defeat. Afterwards, the Serb said, “He showed why he’s a great champion. You know, staying there mentally tough and finishing the match the way he did. Congrats to him and his team. No doubt he deserved it… I lost to a better player today.”

Many pundits picked the dynamic Alcaraz as a close third favourite behind Nadal and Djokovic to win his first Grand Slam title. But Zverev, the 2021 Olympic gold medallist and 2020 U.S. Open finalist, showed the fast-rising Spaniard isn’t quite experienced and consistent enough yet. Alcaraz had already upset Nadal, Djokovic, and Zverev this season. The teenager’s lopsided 6-3, 6-1 win in the Madrid final, however, was undoubtedly caused by the sleep-deprived Zverev’s consecutive late-night matches against Auger-Aliassime and Tsitsipas.

This time, though, the 6’6” Zverev imposed his booming first serve, averaging 131 mph, powerful groundstrokes, and smarter shot selection on the sometimes reckless Alcaraz.

A fourth-set tiebreaker also decided this highly anticipated match. The 25-year-old Zverev had a shockingly poor 0-11 record against top-10 players at Grand Slam events during his seven-year career. On the other hand, he boasted a superlative 11-2 tiebreaker this year. Alcaraz was just 8-8.

Dazzling winners far exceeded unforced errors in the nip-and-tuck tiebreaker. Alcaraz pulled ahead 5-4 with an unreturnable drop shot. But he got caught in No Man’s Land and Zverev banged a backhand winner for 5-5. A backhand winner down the line gave Alcaraz a set point at 6-5, but he squandered it with a backhand error. Zverev fashioned a touch forehand volley to earn a match point at 8-7. And he finished off Alcaraz with a 95-mph backhand return of serve winner.

With a judicious blend of power and consistency, the German prevailed 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (7). The key stats: Zverev committed 34 unforced errors compared to 56 for Alcaraz.

“Give Zverev a lot of credit,” said Tennis Channel analyst Paul Annacone. “He withstood a great pushback by the teenager. I haven’t seen Zverev play at this level in a match he was supposed to win.”

Many observers thought Marin Cilic, a 250-1 pre-tournament longshot, was over the hill at age 33. After all, he won his only Grand Slam back in 2014 at the U.S. Open and last reached a major final at the 2018 Australian Open. But in a physical examination in late 2021, his doctor told him, “Your body’s like 25.” Apparently rejuvenated, he played like he was 25 and beat three players he had losing records against.

The 6’6” Croatian annihilated Medvedev 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 with a barrage of winners in the fourth round. Given Medvedev’s abysmal 4-5 career record at Roland Garros entering the tournament this year, his No. 2 seeding was clearly unjustified. In any event, NBC analyst John McEnroe raved, “Spectacular play by Cilic. That’s the best we’ve seen Cilic play in years, years, years.”

In the quarters, Cilic faced a much sterner test against another elite Russian, No. 7 Rublev. This time the Croatian needed a terrific fifth-set tiebreaker to advance. For years, the French Open, in yet another blunder, had resisted adopting deciding set tiebreakers. This year the Grand Slam Committee rightly decreed that all four majors use a 10-point tiebreaker at six games all in the fifth set.

Parlaying three aces, two explosive forehand serve returns (one whizzing 108 mph), plus forehand and volley winners, Cilic overwhelmed the stunned Rublev 10-2. Cilic said he played the match of his life against Medvedev, but he was just as impressive against Rublev, pounding 88 winners, including 33 aces.

Unfortunately, Cilic’s go-for-broke attack worked for only one set against Ruud in the semifinals. Errors abounded as the Croat had no Plan B and he lost 3-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2. As McEnroe said, “It’s more important to hit the ball with depth than to hit as hard as Cilic.”

The match was disrupted by a protestor. In the third set, a climate change activist with “We have 1028 days left” written on her shirt fastened herself to the net post. The security team removed her from the court, and play was resumed.

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Unfortunate: Germany’s Alexander Zverev is helped to leave the court in a wheelchair after being injured during his men’s singles semifinal against Nadal. Zverev later said he had torn three lateral ligaments in his foot and confirmed he would miss the European grasscourt circuit and most of the American hardcourt tour.

 

The most exciting set of the tournament came in the Nadal-Zverev semifinal. The German fought off three break points and hit a drop volley winner to hold for 5-all. The Spaniard escaped two break points to hold for 6-5. In a thrilling tiebreaker, Zverev had four set points at 6-2 but lost them all. Nadal turned defence into attack as only he can when he raced beyond his alley for a slice backhand and then darted past his other alley for a jaw-dropping forehand crosscourt passing shot. Another forehand passing shot on the dead run gave him the opening set tiebreaker 10-8.

Just when it appeared the boisterous crowd would savour another tiebreaker, tragedy struck. With Nadal serving at 5-6, 40-30, Zverev sprinted for a forehand, tripped, and awkwardly twisted his right ankle. Stunned fans watched as he writhed in pain and screamed in agony. Zverev, who had never before retired from a Tour-level main draw match, was taken away in a wheelchair. He briefly returned to the court on crutches to shake the umpire’s hand and hug Nadal.

“Very tough and very sad for him, honestly,” Nadal said in an NBC Sports interview. “He was playing [an] unbelievable tournament. He’s a very good colleague on the tour, I know how much he’s fighting to win a Grand Slam but, for the moment, he was very unlucky. The only thing that I am sure [of] is he [is] gonna win not one [major], much more than one. So, I wish him all the very best and a very fast recovery.”

Zverev later said he had torn three lateral ligaments in his foot and confirmed he would miss the European grasscourt circuit and most of the American hardcourt tour.

The 12-1/2 year age gap, the largest between French Open finalists in the Open Era, meant nothing, as it turned out. Nadal, the huge favourite, was 13-0 in FO finals, while the relatively inexperienced Ruud was competing in only his 14th major.

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Fan moment: Norway’s Casper Ruud with his runner-up trophy. As a kid, Casper was so smitten with Nadal that he once cried after his hero lost a match. Later he modelled his heavy topspin game after the King of Clay’s and trained at Nadal’s tennis academy in Mallorca, Spain, where he never won a practice match between them.

 

Rudd had never advanced past the fourth round of a major before, and he faced a herculean challenge against Nadal. McEnroe put it bluntly, “Does Rudd do anything better than Nadal?” Clearly not. Furthermore, the right-handed Norwegian liked to hit his backhand 3 feet, 1 inch above the court, while Nadal’s vicious topspin forehand bounded an average of 4 feet, 1 inch high. That spelled trouble, particularly for Rudd’s backhand.

Other than a weirdly inept third game when Nadal broke himself, he dominated the opening 6-3 set. He garnered two service breaks, the most impressive for a 2-0 lead, with a huge forehand winner and a forehand passing shot.

King Felipe VI of Spain sat beside the Crown Prince of Norway Haakon in the front row of the president’s box nicely paralleling the close friendship of Nadal and Ruud, both impeccable sportsmen.

Nadal broke serve three more times to take the second set, 6-3. Meanwhile, Ruud erred tactically by returning serve from far too deep, usually 15 feet behind the baseline. When Nadal took eight straight games to pull ahead 3-0 in the third set, McEnroe paid him the ultimate compliment, “He has an uncanny ability to hit the right shot at the right time — when to go deep, when to go short, when to hit an angle.”

The King of Clay took 12 of the last 15 points to romp to a 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 triumph for his unfathomable 14th title at Roland Garros and 22nd overall, pulling him two ahead of Djokovic and Federer. The feat also propelled Nadal halfway to a calendar Grand Slam.

“How is this even possible?” marvelled McEnroe.

When superstar Pete Sampras captured his 14th major title in 2002, tennis cognoscenti thought that record would be hard, perhaps even impossible, to break. Yet Nadal amassed that many titles at just one major!

“These records will never be broken,” predicted McEnroe.

Nadal, much like Steffi Graf, who also racked up 22 majors, always downplays titles and records.

Afterwards, Nadal told the crowd, “I, for sure, never believed I would be here at 36 being competitive again, playing in the most important court of my career one more time in the final.”

Whatever happens in the future, we should consider ourselves lucky to have enjoyed this extraordinary athlete for nearly 20 years.

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Picturesque: Iga Swiatek of Poland poses with the Suzanne Lenglen Cup in front of the Eiffel Tower at Pont Bir-Hakeim. Swiatek cruised to her second French Open title by dominating teenager Coco Gauff in the final.

 

Swiatek streaks to second Roland Garros title

“She may never lose again!” That was the eye-catching message on a sign raised by a smiling spectator when Iga Swiatek swatted away Lesia Tsurenko 6-2, 6-0 in the French Open first round. The prediction, at least for this fortnight in Paris, seemed more plausible than audacious. The heavy favourite to win her second Roland Garros, Swiatek had reeled off 29 straight wins, a streak that included 14 “bagel” sets. The pride of Poland was more than filling the void left by the stunning retirement in March of No. 1 Ash Barty and the decline of Naomi Osaka.

Who then could stop Swiatek? None of the usual suspects because the top 10 in women’s tennis was weaker than ever. Only two of them, besides irresistible Iga, even made the third round where No. 3 Paula Badosa, the hard-hitting Spaniard, had to retire with an injury against Russia’s Veronika Kudermetova, while No. 7 Aryna Sabalenka was overpowered by Italy’s Camila Giorgi. With a devastating forehand that NBC analyst Mary Carillo calls “the biggest shot in women’s tennis,” Swiatek also boasts a 110-plus-mph first serve, a wicked kick second serve, a solid backhand, and blazing court speed. Though she modelled her all-court game after Rafael Nadal, her idol, she most resembles seven-time major winner Justine Henin, who incidentally also donned a white baseball cap.

READ: Give women prime time slots for better audience, says Billie Jean King

The lithe, 5’9” Swiatek faced just one tough challenge. It came from an unlikely opponent, little-known, No. 74-ranked Qinwen Zheng. In the second round, the 19-year-old Chinese scored her biggest career victory, upsetting Simona Halep, the 2018 Roland Garros champion, 2-6, 6-2, 6-1. Inspired by compatriot Li Na, the 2011 French Open champion, Zheng said, “She gave me a little dream that the Asia people also can do something really good in tennis. Because the first one [to win a major] is always special, and especially at that moment I was really young. So, yeah, she gave me the dream that I can do something big in tennis.”

In the 82-minute first set against Swiatek, the tall teenager with classic strokes and powerful shots looked like she could do something very big. Fighting off five set points, she grabbed the last five points to take the tiebreaker, 7-5. But her dream was soon dashed. Suffering from menstrual pain and an injured right leg, the unlucky Zheng went down 6-7 (5), 6-0, 6-2. “It’s just girl things,” Zheng said. “The first day is always so tough, and then I have to do sport, and I always have so much pain on the first day. The leg made it tough. But that compared to the stomach was easy. I really give my best on the court, it’s just tough.”

Unfazed by losing her first set since April 23, when Liudmile Samsonova extended her in the Stuttgart semifinals, Swiatek quickly regained her near-perfect form.

What’s it like playing Swiatek these days?

No. 11 Jessica Pegula, after succumbing 6-3, 6-2 to Swiatek in the quarterfinals, said, “She just seems like she’s kind of hit another level than all of us right now. Yeah, it’s a little scary. I think her athleticism is very off the charts. I think her defence is really, really, really good, kind of similar to like an Ash Barty, where they have attack and defence, they can get in the corners, dig out the points, play really good defence, and then also take the racquet out of your hands sometimes. I think she’s gotten much more attacking this year, been more aggressive when she’s needed to be.” Swiatek displayed all of those crowd-pleasing assets in disposing of No. 20 Daria Kasatkina, a light-hitting Russian, in a forgettable 6-2, 6-1 semifinal.

Swiatek, who turned an ancient 21 on May 31st, had never lost to a player younger than her in a Tour match. On the other half of the draw, American prodigy Coco Gauff, who turned 18 on March 13th, raced to the final without dropping a set.

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Disconsolate: American teenager Coco Gauff was in tears after losing in straight sets in the final.

 

Gauff missed her high school prom, but she showed off Instagram photos of herself in her cap and gown with the Eiffel Tower in the background. She giggles like a teenager, but she plays with the purpose and poise of a veteran. It seemed almost inevitable the much-touted kid who upset Venus Williams as a 15-year-old at Wimbledon, would reach a major final as a teenager.

But was she mature enough to become the youngest Grand Slam champion since 17-year-old Maria Sharapova upset Serena Williams in the 2004 Wimbledon final? Was she skilled enough on clay to become the first teenager to defeat the world No.1 in the Roland Garros final since Iva Majoli shocked Martina Hingis in 1997? Had she progressed enough to turn the tables on Swiatek, who had beaten her in their two previous matches — 7-6, 6-3 in the 2021 Rome semifinal and 6-3, 6-1 in the 2022 Miami round of 16?

With a super-easy draw — she didn’t face a top-30 player — Gauff hadn’t dropped a set in six matches. While that had to boost her confidence, it’s often important to survive a tough test before the final. All-time great Martina Navratilova, a Tennis Channel analyst, said, “Gauff’s only advantage is her serving.” About Gauff in her first major final, former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport cautioned, “You never know how a player reacts in the biggest match of her life.”

We know how Swiatek reacted when the stakes were highest and the pressure greatest. She thrashed Sofia Kenin in the 2020 Roland Garros final. Since losing her first final in 2019, she captured eight of nine finals, never giving up more than five games.

Alas, the inexperienced Gauff started nervously with three unforced groundstroke errors and a double fault. “She broke herself,” said Carillo. Sensing a possible rout, Swiatek pounced. A wicked kick serve wide in the ad court set up a forehand winner to give her a 2-0 lead. The Pole averaged a rocket-like 86 mph on her forehand, five mph more than the fastest forehand average by any man in the tournament. In sharp contrast, Gauff’s dodgy forehand misfired to the tune of nine unforced errors in the first set. Too often hitting on the dead run and off-balance, Gauff dropped the first set 6-1. The kid, still hyper, also hurt her cause by rushing between points.

Just when it looked like a crowd-deflating rout, the momentum abruptly changed. Swiatek sprayed the new balls for four unforced errors and lost her serve. Gauff loosened up enough to belt an ace, backhand winner, and then a crosscourt forehand winner to hold serve for 2-0. But the Pole, who credits Daria Abramowicz, her travelling sports psychologist, for keeping her calm, regrouped to take the next five games.

READ: French Open: More Paris heartbreak for Gauff as Mladenovic, Garcia win doubles

Gauff provided a bit of last-gasp drama when she blasted a 118-mph ace and a forehand winner to hold serve for 5-3. But not even chants of “Allez, Coco!” could spark any more of a comeback. The new superstar quickly finished off the outclassed challenger to claim her second Grand Slam title, 6-1, 6-3.

Swiatek collapsed on her knees to celebrate, hugged Gauff at the net, and then sprinted through the tunnel to her Player Box. There, she hugged her team, her father, a former Olympic rower, and her two younger brothers. Meanwhile, disconsolate Coco wept, then hid her face under a towel.

“Coco didn’t play the match she wanted to play,” said Carillo. But Gauff rose to the occasion during the trophy presentation. The precocious American, who wrote “Peace. End gun violence” on a camera lens after an earlier match, said, “I think in general using sports as a platform is important. It’s important that we mention these things. Writing something isn’t going to end it... but for me, it’s about influencing the leaders that are in office and leaders around the world maybe to hear that message.” Mass shootings in the U.S. have averaged more than 1.5 per day this year.

Swiatek also used her racquet as a megaphone to promote peace. “I would like to say something to Ukraine. Stay strong, the war is still there,” she told the applauding Court Philippe Chatrier crowd. “Since my first speech in Doha (on February 26, two days after Russia invaded Ukraine), basically I was hoping when I am doing the next one the situation will be better.” Tragically, the war rages on, and more than 3.5 million Ukraine refugees have fled to Poland.

Tennis is fortunate to have two such politically concerned champions. Both will certainly have many more opportunities to address stadium crowds after prestigious finals. Swiatek’s 35th straight victory to finish off her sixth straight title equalled Venus Williams’s record for the longest WTA winning streak of the 21st century.

“To have that kind of streak, I needed everything,” she said to NBC’s Maria Taylor. “I needed to be there mentally, [and also] physically to be ready because I had many long matches during all this time. Tennis-wise, I needed to be more aggressive, and I finally realised how to do that. It’s all coming together.”

Tennis fans love exciting, athletic superstars, but they relish compelling rivalries even more. Who has the talent and dedication to stop the runaway train named Swiatek?