PARIS — He fooled us again, which is, in itself, quite a feat at this stage of the sport.
Perhaps Rafael Nadal really means it when he talks down his probabilities at Roland Garros, and there was definitely no fakery involved last month when he limped and grimaced through the ultimate set of an early-round defeat on the Italian Open and looked particularly weary of the grind and the chronic pain in his left foot.
Nadal did indeed find himself in unfamiliar territory as he returned to his favorite stomping ground of Roland Garros. He was very short on clay-court matches and with none clay-court titles this season because the tournament began. Novak Djokovic seemed to be regathering momentum. Carlos Alcaraz, a young Spaniard, appeared to be rising like a rocket.
But there is no such thing as a tonic quite like Parisian red clay for Nadal. And on Sunday, after working his way through the loaded top half of the draw, he was much an excessive amount of, even at lower than his best, for the No. 8 seed Casper Ruud within the French Open men’s final, winning 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 in a match that lasted 2 hours and 18 minutes.
The victory secured Nadal his 14th men’s singles title on the tournament, extending a French Open record that appears more unbeatable with every passing spring.
He also prolonged his lead within the three-way majors race with Djokovic and Roger Federer. Nadal now has a men’s record 22 Grand Slam singles titles, two greater than Djokovic, whom Nadal beat within the quarterfinals here, and Federer, who at age 40 remains to be recovering from his latest knee surgery.
Sunday’s triumph, with Billie Jean King and King Felipe VI of Spain in attendance, also made Nadal, at 36, the oldest man to win the French Open, surpassing his compatriot Andrés Gimeno, who won the title in 1972 at age 34.
“I needless to say never believed I could be here at 36 being competitive again, playing in an important court of my profession yet another time in the ultimate,” Nadal said. “It means quite a bit to me, means every little thing. It just means plenty of energy to try to maintain going.”
Nadal’s tone of late has been valedictory: he has repeatedly referred to the likelihood that he may very well be playing his final French Open. But after slamming the door on Ruud on Sunday after which hugging him at the web, Nadal made it clear that this was not going to be the tennis equivalent of a walk-off grand slam.
“I don’t know what can occur in the long run but I’m going to maintain fighting to try to maintain going,” he said, because the sellout crowd of 15,000, clearly well aware of the speculation, roared its approval.
He definitely looked ready for more against Ruud, picking up speed and precision because the match progressed. Nadal was not at his best early and was at times removed from his best: losing his serve within the third game with two double faults and an off-rhythm forehand unforced error into the center of the web. But Ruud was also struggling to search out his way, looking edgy and restricted on the pivotal points within the opening set after which getting outplayed on the pivotal points within the later stages after he had worked through his nerves.
His one real surge got here in the beginning of the second set, when he broke Nadal’s serve again to take a 3-1 lead but at 30-30 in the following game, Ruud lined up an inside-out forehand and maybe sensing that excellence was required, went for just an excessive amount of and missed. Nadal broke him back on the following point and wouldn’t lose one other game: reeling off 11 straight and ending off the victory with a backhand down the road within the sunshine.
Nadal is within the midst of considered one of his most remarkable seasons, despite the chronic pain that left him so downbeat in Rome and required intensive treatment in Paris.
After missing nearly the entire second half of the 2021 season due to the foot problem — he has a condition often known as Müller-Weiss syndrome — he roared back to win the Australian Open, rallying to defeat Daniil Medvedev in a five-set final.
He went on to begin the season with 20 straight victories before losing in the ultimate of the BNP Paribas Open in March to American Taylor Fritz, partially due to a recent injury: a stress fracture in his ribs. That forced Nadal to take one other prolonged break and miss many of the clay-court season before returning in Madrid last month.
He was beaten by Alcaraz within the quarterfinals after which beaten by Denis Shapovalov within the round-of-16 in Rome. But Nadal arrived at Roland Garros along with his longtime physician Angel Ruiz-Cotorro, who was in a position to help Nadal manage the pain and a really rough draw.
Nadal needed to defeat 4 of the highest nine seeds to win the title: No. 9 Felix Auger-Aliassime, No. 1 Djokovic, No. 3 Alexander Zverev and No. 8 Ruud in what turned out to essentially the most lopsided of all those matches.
Nadal has not only won 14 French Open singles titles, he has won all 14 of the singles finals he has played at Roland Garros.
So many records. A lot enduring excellence, and Ruud, an affable 23-year-old Norwegian, definitely needed no reminder of his opponent’s achievements as he walked into the Philippe Chatrier Court as the primary Norwegian man to play in a Grand Slam singles final.
Ruud, who broke into the highest 10 last yr, has had two major role models as he emerged from a nation higher known for excelling on snow than on clay. There was his father, Christian, who coached him and was a tour-level player ranked as high as No. 39 in 1995. And there was Nadal, along with his extreme topspin forehand and hard-wired combativeness.
He began training frequently along with his team at Nadal’s tennis academy in Majorca, Spain, in 2018 and even played — and lost — practice sets against Nadal.
He also has played golf with Nadal, pondering he was in for a relaxed experience only to find that Nadal’s competitive streak was not restricted to the tennis court.
But Sunday was Ruud’s first likelihood to face Nadal on tour.
“To play Rafa in a Roland Garros final might be the best challenge there may be on this sport,” Ruud said.
That was before the ultimate, and on Sunday afternoon after it was over in a rush, Ruud made it clear in his runner-up speech his that he had not modified his mind.
“It’s difficult, I’m not the primary victim,” Ruud said to Nadal. “I do know that there have been many before.”
And never to get fooled again, but it can be intriguing to see, in light of Nadal’s age and increasingly nostalgic mood, whether Ruud will turn into the last.