Before running into the French Open final again on Sunday afternoon, Rafael Nadal asked one of these “Would you rather?” Questions.
Nadal suffers from Muller-Weiss syndrome, which causes persistent and intractable pain in the foot. Would you rather win the final or get a new foot?
Nadal chose the foot “without a doubt”.
Fast forward to Nadal’s victory speech. Does Nadal prefer to continue the struggle or get out of the top?
The 36-year-old Spaniard stuck to compliments in most of his statements. It wasn’t until the last line that he signaled the direction forward.
“I don’t know what could happen in the future,” Nadal said. “But I will keep fighting to keep going.”
Nadal now holds 22 Grand Slam titles – more than any other men’s player. Fourteen of those major victories came at the French Open.
The vast majority of tennis pros don’t last 14 years. Nadal’s dominance in Paris probably won’t be the unparalleled record in the sport, but I’d be hard pressed to consider an alternative.
It is also difficult to find new superlatives with which to tell this story. If you’re the right age, you can’t remember a time when Nadal wasn’t supposed to win this tournament. This year, more than ever, what we’ve done has been promoting the truth of natural law.
Every immortal sport has a distinctive characteristic that goes beyond athletic ability. Ali was more charismatic than any tycoon. Pele was an indomitable joy. Jordan was tough and flawless.
This year, Nadal reminded us of his defining trait – he doesn’t know how to quit.
Lots of pros win when they have to. On the mud, Nadal wins when he doesn’t. He wins when he really feels like it, when he doesn’t, and when he spends the whole two weeks telling people he’s probably going to retire. He wins day and night. It wins like the sun rises in the east – always.
And Nadal doesn’t sneak under the bar just to win. It goes through people to get there. Probably the closest point of comparison to Nadal is not Roger Federer. Perhaps the secretariat.
Sunday’s other man – 23-year-old Casper Rudd – said it best: “I’m not the first victim.”
In France, Nadal has no opponents. He has victims.
Sunday’s final also had a distinctive feature: boredom. As it turned out, everyone was right. The quarter-final match against Novak Djokovic was the real final.
That’s not to say the level of Sunday’s tennis wasn’t high, just that it was just as balanced as someone trying to carry four pints of beer through a crowded bar. Lots of spillage.
The match’s iconic shot was not a winner. Rudd had been putting pressure on Nadal so bad that he almost kicked the referee out of his chair. That miss decided the first set.
All along, the Norwegian was a man who lived the “naked oral exam in front of the high school complex”, except in real life. The largely silent audience seemed awkward on his behalf.
Rudd came in briefly at the start of the second set. Despite Nadal’s favour, fans jumped in support of the newcomer. Roland Garros is a long way to go on a Sunday afternoon to watch two hours of tennis on one side.
Rod took the lead. Nadal rolled it again. Rod eludes the goal line. Nadal continued to tug.
Toward the end of this struggle, Rod looked at his chest and shrugged his shoulders. You can see in that gesture the exact moment he gave up. Rod won’t win another game.
However, this was not an example of someone turning over under pressure. This was an example of a man trying to stand upright after being hit by a series of rogue waves. Rod did not lose. Nadal won 6-3, 6-3, 6-0.
Perhaps the best way to sum up the scale of Nadal’s achievements at the French Open is to compare him to this year’s winner on the women’s side, Iga Swatic. She dropped one set in all tournaments en route to the controlled demolition of America’s Coco Gauff in another final on Saturday.
The 21-year-old Pole has spent the past four months on a frenzy despite the women’s match. She has won 35 consecutive matches. In a recent interview, Naomi Osaka described having a nightmare about playing Swiatek – “I was so scared.” This is the whole nightmare – playing with it.
Swiatek inspires fear after a fantastic run that lasted for weeks. Nadal has been doing the same thing since shortly after the invention of Facebook. Its dominance spans entire ages of our common cultural history.
Some of you are concerned that the cost of this great success will be worth it. If we take his word for Nadal, every tournament he plays puts his post-career health at risk.
“Winning is beautiful and gives you adrenaline for a little while, but life goes on,” Nadal told reporters in France. “Life is more important than any address.”
After that nice bit of philosophy, Nadal contradicted himself by going out there and winning anyway.
We have to trust Nadal that he will know when everything becomes too much. We have to hope there won’t come a moment where we see him fall like other greats – suddenly and in confusion.
But we must understand that this is probably inevitable, and enjoy it now as it is and on its own terms. Because Nadal doesn’t know how to quit, some force beyond his control has to quit for him.