Relentless Rafa, resilient Halep reign supreme

Nadal, the ultimate competitor, is even more the humble perfectionist. As he learned from Uncle Toni, he can always improve. And to stay No. 1 and add to his unprecedented “La Undecima” title, he has to. And he will. In women’s tennis, seven different players have won the last seven Grand Slams, but none have overcome as much adversity as French Open champion Simona Halep.

Nadal stamped his authority on clay yet again even as Simona Halep clinched her maiden Grand Slam at the French Open.   -  Getty Images

Stories abound about the life lessons Rafael Nadal learned on the tennis courts from his uncle and longtime coach Toni Nadal. Each lesson imprinted a powerful message that young Rafa took to heart and never forgot. Their themes involved humility, hard work, resilience, and respect for the game.

One such lesson came when Rafa, an 11-year-old prodigy, won the Spanish junior (18-and-under) championships. To ensure that Rafa didn’t make too much of it, Toni read the names of the previous 25 junior champions to his nephew who had heard of only five of them. To make his point, Toni said, “This is the possibility you have.”

When at age 19, Nadal won his first Grand Slam title at the 2005 French Open, Toni repeated the same message, noting that fellow Spaniards Carlos Moya and Juan Carlos Ferrero had won Roland Garros only once. He stressed to Rafa that it’s difficult to improve when you’re completely satisfied with what you’ve achieved and that you have to improve every year and sometimes even that may not be enough.

Nadal's records at a glance

This year it has proven to be more than enough—especially on his beloved clay at Roland Garros. Those who say records are made to be broken will likely concede that the 11 singles title Nadal captured this past fortnight is a men’s record too extraordinary ever to be eclipsed. To grasp its magnitude, consider that Bjorn Borg ranks second with six French titles and Roger Federer amassed the second most men’s titles at any major, eight at Wimbledon.

Boundless passion

What accounts for the longevity at an elite level of this finely tuned, almost super-human athlete?

Much like Federer, the 32-year-old Nadal harbors a boundless passion for training and competing. “What’s most amazing to me is that Rafa’s is still hungry to improve,” says 1980s superstar John McEnroe. “The intensity Rafa puts into every shot is the biggest difference between him and everyone else,” points out Moya, who replaced Toni Nadal as head coach 18 months ago.

READ: Nadal's 11 French Open titles

Dominic Thiem, a 24-year-old Austrian, is clearly the second best player on clay.   -  Getty Images

 

It’s almost become a cliché that “the toughest challenge in tennis is beating Rafael Nadal on clay in a best-of-five-set match.” 

Indeed, his 86-2 career record at Roland Garros and 111-2 overall record in best-of-five matches on clay attest to that. His only losses: to Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009 and Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals in 2015.

Before the 2018 French final, Gunter Bresnik, who has coached Dominic Thiem since he was 9, even acknowledged in The New York Times: “Nadal, in Paris, best-of-five, is still half a class above Dominic, half a level too good. He is, for me, the best competitor I ever saw in any sport, and I watch sport a lot for many, many years. Nadal’s capable of keeping this very aggressive, high-intensity level over an unbelievably long period of time.”

WATCH: 'Winning again is something almost impossible'

That Thiem, a 24-year-old Austrian, dealt Nadal his only two losses on clay in the past two years seemed to count for little to Bresnik and other cognoscenti because both came in two-of-three-set matches — at Rome in May 2017 and at Madrid last month. What mattered far more was Nadal’s emphatic 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 thrashing of Thiem in the semis last year at Roland Garros.

Since then Nadal has only become more formidable. Exemplifying the hallmark of great champions to keep improving, he added variety to his serve by targeting opponents’ forehands more often, increased the power on his backhand, and played closer to the baseline so he can dictate rallies more often.

Thiem, a superbly conditioned 6'1" and 180 pounds, boasts an explosive first serve that has reached 140 mph and a wickedly spinning second serve that pulls opponents far beyond the baseline and alley. With powerful groundstrokes, he’s one of the few players able to slug it out with Nadal from the baseline—at least when he’s on his game. To reach the final, the seventh-seeded Thiem overpowered fast-rising Stefanos Tsitsipas, 19-seeded Kei Nishikori, second-seeded but injured Alexander Zverev, and surprise semifinalist and giant-killer Marco Cecchinato, who upset Djokovic.

ALSO READ: Nadal has no 'obsession' to hunt down Federer tally

Exemplifying the hallmark of great champions to keep improving, Nadal added variety to his serve by targeting opponents’ forehands more often, increased the power on his backhand, and played closer to the baseline so he can dictate rallies more often.   -  Getty Images

 

Meanwhile, Nadal trounced every opponent in straight sets, except for the shortest player in the draw, 5'7” Diego Schwartzman. The speedy and skillful Argentine grabbed a set off Nadal at the Australian Open in January in a tough three-hour duel. Now seeded a lofty No. 11 and exuding confidence, he took the first set 6-4 and trailed 5-3 in the second when the match was suspended by rain. Predictably, the next day the muscular Nadal steamrolled the valiant but outgunned Schwartzman to prevail 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.’

‘Keep on running’

In the semis, Nadal overwhelmed fifth-seeded Juan Martin del Potro 6-4, 6-1, 6-2. Before the match, when Del Potro was asked why his worst results come on clay, the 6'6" Argentine admitted, “I don’t like to run.” You had better not only like running, but even relish it, against the relentlessly aggressive Nadal, or else don’t bother to take the court against him.

Thiem, though, can sprint for hours and play defense adroitly. He also sounded confident, and a bit mysterious, when he said, “I know how to play against him. I have a plan.” Those words reminded veteran sportswriters of then-undefeated heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. When told his next challenger had a plan to beat him, “Iron Mike” retorted, “Everybody has a plan until they get hit. Then, like a rat, they stop in fear and freeze.”

Tyson, a big tennis fan who now calls himself a “tennis parent,” was a Roland Garros spectator. He watched Thiem, like many debutants in their first Grand Slam final, “freeze” and start nervously. He lost eight of the first nine points and lost his serve to quickly go down 2-0. Suddenly, though, Thiem relaxed and broke back in the next game with two forehand winners. With Thiem doing much more running and defending than Nadal, the Austrian barely won his next two very long service games.

Serving at 4-5, Thiem self-destructed. He decided to serve and volley despite lacking prowess at net and erred on a backhand volley. Then he panicked, over-hitting three straight forehands, the last landing 15 feet beyond the baseline, to give away the opening set, 6-4. Thiem later called them “terrible misses.”

Nadal, who gets called more than anyone for time violations for exceeding the allowed 25 seconds between points, pulled a fast one—or rather a slow one—when he left the court for four minutes to change his sweat-soaked aqua T-shirt. Violating the “play must be continuous” rule, the “shirt break,” prompted NBC analyst McEnroe to quip, “I guess if you win 10 French Opens, you can do that.”

Backhand woes

Last year, Nadal achieved “La Decima” at Roland Garros, and those famous words are inscribed on his tennis shoes and tennis bag to remind everyone of the feat. Indeed, this is the second most-famous record in men’s tennis after Federer’s 20 Grand Slam titles. (Margaret Court has 24 and Serena Williams 23.)

The second set repeated the pattern of the first set with Nadal holding serve routinely and Thiem losing his serve to fall behind 2-1. This time Nadal converted on his fifth break point. Six backhand errors proved Thiem’s undoing. Much like his tactics against Federer, Nadal pounded Thiem’s one-handed backhand mercilessly with vicious crosscourt topspin forehands until it broke down. On dry days such as this, Nadal’s forehands bounce an average of 5'6", about head-high, making it extremely difficult for Thiem to time and solidly strike the ball with just one hand.

Thiem fought valiantly but there was no stopping Nadal, the King of Clay.   -  Getty Images

 

To try to compensate for his backhand woes, Thiem blasted forehands recklessly, increasingly erring on that wing. On the panicking tactic, NBC analyst Mary Carillo noted, “It’s a desperate way to play, swinging from your heels on every shot. I find myself holding my breath when he takes his racket back.”

Leading 4-2, Nadal encountered a brief crisis when Thiem hit a beautiful drop shot winner to earn a break point. Nadal retaliated with two nifty drop shots of his own that resulted in his winning points, and on the next point he held serve for 5-2. He closed out the second set, 6-3, after Thiem made three more backhand errors.

Thiem fought valiantly to survive four break points in the opening game of the third set, only to get broken in his next service game to trail 2-1. Nadal, a ruthless frontrunner, was in the driver’s seat. Yet another French Open crown seemed all but inevitable.

Overcoming cramps

With Nadal serving at 30-love in the next game, the final took a bizarre twist. He stopped play to call for a trainer. Once again, Nadal seemed to bend the rules. The trainer rubbed his forearm to treat a cramp in the middle finger of Nadal’s racket-wielding hand. Later, Nadal revealed, “I was not able to move the hand, the finger. I was not [in] control of my finger. I got a little cramp on my hand. I was scared.” Cramps of any kind are caused by “a loss of condition,” and according to the rules, players are not allowed to be treated for that.

“Only his body or the weather has ever beaten Rafa here,” noted all-time great Martina Navratilova about the injury-prone Nadal, who had to retire with a leg injury against Marin Cilic in the Australian Open quarterfinals in January.

WATCH: Nadal - The King of Paris

Nadal double-faulted on the next point, but he escaped the crisis when he hit a forehand volley winner and a timid Thiem slice backhand floated out. That made it 3-1 Nadal.

A sensational Nadal backhand service return forced a Thiem error to give Nadal an insurance service break and a 5-2 lead. Thiem then staved off four championship points. But on the fifth, he missed a backhand service return. Game, set, and match 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 for The King of Clay.

After not winning the French Open for two years, 2015 and 2016, Nadal has won the last two. Incredibly, Nadal and 36-year-old Federer, ageless legends both, have grabbed the last six Grand Slam titles.

“It was not even a dream to win 11 because it’s not possible to think about something like this,” Nadal told the appreciative crowd who gave him a prolonged ovation. As he clutched the coveted La Coupe des Mousquetaires during the Spanish national anthem, he cried a few tears of joy. “It was a very special moment to receive that minute or two minutes of the crowd supporting me,” Nadal said, “the feeling in that moment was difficult to describe. Very emotional for me.”

The second best

Thiem, clearly the second-best clay-court player in the world now, graciously said, “There is a reason why he won 11 times here. It’s definitely one of the best things somebody ever achieved in sport. Congrats. It’s amazing. Bravo.”

The runner-up, a soft-spoken mensch, then recalled watching Nadal’s first French final on TV in 2005 when Thiem was 11. “Honestly, I never expected that one day I play the final here,” he said. “So I’m really happy. For sure, me, I’m confident that this was not my last Grand Slam final, and that’s my biggest goal: to get into the next one and then to do better than today.”

A generous Nadal said, “I am sure you will win here in the next couple of years.”

Don’t be fooled by those encouraging words. Nadal, the ultimate competitor, is even more the humble perfectionist. As he learned from Uncle Toni, he can always improve. And to stay No. 1 and add to his unprecedented “La Undecima” title, he has to. Expect him to be even better next year. As Nadal noted, “You can always improve something, I think that everyone can improve. There is no limit. You never know what the limit is.”

Nadal loves the challenge of reaching his potential and the sheer joy of playing the game.

“I am just trying to keep enjoying, and keep playing until my body resists. My happiness is still high playing tennis,” he said. “When that changes, it will be a time to do another thing, and I am not worried about this.”

Halep Exorcises Her Demons to Win First Grand Slam Title

What is the single most important quality in a tennis champion? I would have to say desire, staying in there and winning matches when you are not playing that well.” — John McEnroe

The most important factor determining success in athletic competition is often the ability to control mood swings that result from unfavourable changes in the score.” — Arthur Ashe

Sloane Stephens congratulates Simona Halep after the French Open final.   -  Getty Images

  Seven other women, besides Simona Halep, had lost their first three Grand Slam finals. Dinara Safina, paralyzed by nervousness on the big stage, would never win a major. The upbeat Kim Clijsters ended the drought and won four majors. Superstar Chris Evert wound up with 18 major titles, including a record seven at Roland Garros.

Halep, though, had suffered heartbreakingly close three-set defeats in each of her first three finals: to Maria Sharapova at the 2014 French Open, to underdog upstart Jelena Ostapenko at the 2017 French Open, and to Caroline Wozniacki at the 2018 Australian Open.

READ: Halep unable to express emotions after ending Grand Slam wait

Tennis often seems like a cruel sport. As 14-time major champion Pete Sampras once said, “People don’t remember who finishes second.” But devastating losses can inspire players as well as shatter them.

Would the emotional Halep exorcise her demons and make history at her favorite tournament, the one she dreamed of winning ever since she was 14? Or was she forever destined to be a disappointed and forgotten bridesmaid?

Facing No. 1-seeded Halep across the net this time was Sloane Stephens. A long-time underachiever, the 25-year-old American stunned the tennis world by capturing the 2017 US Open soon after being sidelined for 11 months by a foot injury. Supremely confident, the 10-seeded Stephens was tested just once before the French final, in a harrowing 4-6, 6-1, 8-6 third-rounder against slugging Camila Giorgi. She then overpowered 14-seeded Daria Kasatkina 6-3, 6-1 and outsmarted 13-seeded Madison Keys 6-4, 6-4.

Tough draw

However, much like at the Australian Open in January where a brutal draw finally exhausted her, Halep faced a tough draw in Paris. She once again overcame Germany’s two-time major titlist Angelique Kerber, this time 6-7, 6-3, 6-2 in the quarterfinals.

In the semifinals, an eagerly anticipated showdown pitted Halep against 2016 French Open and 2017 Wimbledon champion Garbiñe Muguruza. The 6' Spanish powerhouse hadn’t lost a set and trounced the resurgent Maria Sharapova 6-2, 6-1 in the quarterfinals. Moreover, Muguruza boasted a splendid 32-6 record at Grand Slam events in her young career.

Displaying newfound offense to complement her stellar defense, the 5'6" Romanian stunned Muguruza with four serve breaks in the opening set and staved off three break points at 4-4 in the second set to notch a spectacular 6-1, 6-4 victory. “Simona played fabulous tennis,” said Tennis Channel analyst Tracy Austin, “but she also showed so much growth, maturity and resilience, especially in the 4-all game.”

But Stephens would prove a far more complicated and difficult opponent in the final than the one-dimensional Muguruza. A boxer-puncher, the supremely athletic Stephens frustrated foes with her relentless retrieving. Then, like a boa constrictor, she pounced for the kill with a dynamic groundstroke or volley.

Like Halep, Stephens had been accused of mental frailty. In her case, it wasn’t nerves, but a strange passivity, sometimes bordering on apathy. Evert, renowned for her steely competitiveness and concentration, criticized Stephens for lacking both essential athletic attributes.

After winning the US Open last September, Stephens shockingly lost eight straight matches, including a first-rounder at the Australian Open. Telling Evert and her other critics to chill out, she backed up her confident words by winning the Miami Open. There she knocked out four Grand Slam titlists—Muguruza, Kerber, Victoria Azarenka, and Ostapenko. In her next four events, though, the inconsistent Stephens slumped to a mediocre 6-4 record.

Advantage Stephens

Stephens clearly regained her A-game at Roland Garros. She also displayed the requisite intensity and equanimity under pressure to execute her versatile shot-making. Stephens’ impressive 6-0 record in tournament finals gave her one more reason to believe she could win her second major.

Indeed, for the first 50 minutes, Stephens looked like she would. Capitalizing on her superior serve and forehand to dictate most of the first set and gliding around the court to defuse Halep’s most offensive shots, Stephens “made everything look sublimely easy,” as NBC tennis analyst Mary Carillo put it.

In contrast, Halep was working hard in every rally and grunting loudly with every shot. In the fourth game, Stephens converted her first break point when Halep missed a forehand to end a gruelling rally. That service break was all she needed to take the first set, 6-3.

Wearing black shorts and a blue sleeveless top—in sharp contrast to Halep’s stylish sky blue dress—Stephens showed off her lithe physique and athletic pedigree. Her late father John Stephens, a running back for the New England Patriots, won the 1988 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award; her mother Sybil Smith attended Boston University and became the first African American swimmer to earn NCAA Div. I All-America honors. The non-traditional attire perhaps also sent a message that Stephens is “Chicago tough,” as her coach Kamau Murray calls her.

Staying positive and determined

Down 6-3, 2-0 to Sloane Stephens in the 2018 French Open final, it looked like déjà vu all over again for the harried Halep. It was do-or-die time in her fourth bid to win her first major. She had to summon every bit of her courage and coolness—or else face certain defeat. “When I was down a break in the second set, I said OK, everything is gone,” she recalled later. “I just have to start to relax and to enjoy the match. And I came back.”

That she did! Using the partisan crowd’s chants of “See-moe-nah! See-moe-nah!” to give her an adrenalin rush, she seized 16 of the next 19 points and four straight games. The rapid momentum swing produced two service breaks and gave Halep a 4-2 lead. While Halep became energized, Stephens looked listless.

But the set was far from over. Three unforced errors from Halep’s forehand, her weaker groundstroke, gave Stephens a critical service break for 4-3 Halep. After Stephens held serve for 4-all, she battled to 30-all in the next game.

The American was just six points away from her second major title. The Romanian was just that close to another bitter setback in a Grand Slam final.

Leaving nothing to chance, Halep attacked. She struck a forehand winner and then dictated the next point to force a Stephens backhand error. Halep kept the pressure on as Stephens got passive. Halep broke serve for the third time to win the second set 6-4 when a tired, deflated Stephens stroked a backhand in the alley.

Halep had the momentum now as well as the confidence gained from a terrific 12-2 record in three-set matches this season, compared to 6-3 for Stephens. “Ninety-five percent of this set will be about the head,” predicted NBC analyst John McEnroe, whose own dream of a French title was dashed in a five-set comeback victory by Ivan Lendl in the memorable 1984 final.

The determined Halep kept her foot on the gas pedal in the deciding set. She came back from a love-30 deficit to win the first game, broke serve in the second game when Stephens made a desultory forehand error on game point, and routinely held serve to shoot ahead, 3-0. A year ago, Halep led Ostapenko 6-4, 3-0 only to have the bold Latvian sock winner after winner to pull an astounding comeback.

Could that dire scenario happen yet again to Halep?

“The only thing that can stop Halep are Halep’s nerves,” said Carillo. “Can she handle the moment? What Simona has shown more than anything is resilience. That’s the best part of any athlete—getting up again after you’re knocked down.”

Halep claimed her first Grand Slam title at her favourite tournament, the one she had longed dreamed of winning. She put her hands over her eyes in ecstasy and relief and perhaps even a little disbelief.   -  Getty Images

 

Career-changing feat

Halep works with sports psychologist Alexis Castorri and is coached by the expert and empathetic Darren Cahill, a former world-class player. Both teach and preach positivity, an area where Halep has improved enormously during the past two years.

The new, mentally tough Halep secured her second service break and a healthy 4-0 lead on the best point of the tournament. On her second break point, Halep leaped high to stab a backhand volley that forced a half-volley error from Stephens.

Serving at 0-5, 0-30 and two points from defeat, Stephens rebounded to win the game. But it was too little and much too late. Taking advantage of new, faster tennis balls, Halep whacked her only ace, a 96-mph forehand winner, a putaway overhead, and an unreturnable serve.

With the 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 triumph, Halep claimed her first Grand Slam title at her favourite tournament, the one she had longed dreamed of winning. She put her hands over her eyes in ecstasy and relief and perhaps even a little disbelief. After all, the career-changing feat came in her 32nd major event.

As delighted spectators continued to chant “See-moe-nah! See-moe-nah!” she hugged Stephens at the net and then climbed up the stands and embraced her parents, brother, and friends, including her longtime manager and mentor Virginia Ruzici, in her Player’s Box. Ruzici won the French Open 40 years ago, the last Romanian to claim a major singles title until Halep.

During the trophy presentation, Halep told the crowd she channelled her experience in the three previous losing finals in a positive way, especially during the momentum swings. “That’s the most important thing — that I stay there focused. I believed. And I never gave up…. In the last game I felt I cannot breathe any more. It’s amazing what is happening now. Honestly, I can’t believe it.”

Stephens, who rose to a career-high No. 4 in the rankings, candidly acknowledged, “She raised her game, raised her level. I competed the best I could, and the better player won the match today. I’m not satisfied, but I am proud of myself.”

Halep became the seventh woman to win the last seven majors, but none overcame as much adversity. Stephens noted that, saying, “I think she’s had a tough journey. I think winning here is very special for her and I’m glad she finally got her first Slam. It’s a beautiful thing. No matter how hard the adversity that you go through, there is always light at the end of the tunnel, and I’m glad she finally got her light.

“It’s a great story and just a great moment for her, and you can only support the other person and be happy for them. Because if it was the other way around, I know that it would be reciprocated.”

Both stars will likely win more major titles this decade. But a new queen named Coco may reign in the 2020s. Cori “Coco” Gauff, a 14-year-old, African-American prodigy with a broad-shouldered, 5'11" physique and the athleticism of Serena and Venus Williams, won the girls’ title.

After upsetting the No. 2, 6, and 15 seeds, Gauff overcame fellow American, 16-year-old Caty McNally 1-6, 6-3, 7-6 in the hard-hitting final. On championship point, Gauff hit a winner with a diving volley.