The two toughest matches for Rafael Nadal at this year’s French Open, which ended yesterday, were the quarters against his rival Novak Djokovic and the semis against the young challenger Alexander Zverev.
Djokovic was the defending champion, having beat Nadal in last year’s semis and having made an astonishing comeback from 0-2 sets in the final against another young challenger, Stefanos Tsitsipas, to take his second Coupe des Mousquetaires. The smart money was mostly on him, who had been playing with increasing dominance since returning to the Tour following some unpleasantness about covid vaccines in Australia, which prevented him from defending his title there. There was also another young challenger, teen phenom Carlos Alcaraz, who looked unstoppable until, as it happens, Zverev stopped him in quarters. Aiming for his 14th French Open trophy, Nadal met Zverev in the semis, while still another relative newcomer, Norway’s Casper Ruud, would meet him in the final.
The real heart and soul of a champion comes out in these moments of giving — credit to the rare opponent who beats him, concern and encouragement to those whom he beats.
Nadal was in severe pain, having broken a rib at the Indian Wells tournament in February and dealing with a new stage of a chronic degenerative foot condition, Mueller-Weiss syndrome.
What was remarkable about these last days of the annual Roland-Garros event, which unfortunately TAS could not cover on-site, or, rather, was not remarkable but rather typical of Nadal, was that where he really showed his stuff was in the way he played through the pain without talking about it, and then his reaction to what happened in the semis.
In the quarters, he took the lead but Djokovic came back in the second set and it looked like he was going to do what he does best, grind his opponent down while constantly raising his level of play. He was doing that, but Nadal was too, and he outfought Djokovic in the third set, maintained his pace, indeed augmented it to an outstanding effort in the fourth set tiebreak. The great Belgradian said so himself, Nadal played better, which, on a clay court, meant he was unbeatable.
And against Zverev it seemed it might be just too much, another close, intense match against a younger man whose time had come. And indeed the first set tiebreak was very close, 10-8, and it seemed the young German, six-six with a booming serve and fully in control or his groundstrokes and notably his monster forehand, was far from done. The second set went to tiebreak too and Zverev fired one of those forehands down the line on the first point — only to roll his ankle and collapse in screaming pain.
Nadal was running to the other side of the net even as Zverev was hitting the ground. What mattered was not whether the match would be forfeit, but the other’s accident. Not his own pain, but his opponent’s: Rafa Nadal, who is a volunteer fireman in his home town, is a great champion, and, notwithstanding the formidable athleticism and technique that he maintains and keeps improving at age 36 (the semis fell on his birthday), the real heart and soul of a champion comes out in these moments of giving — credit to the rare opponent who beats him, concern and encouragement to those whom he beats.
Endurance, sportsmanship, and grace were on display on the women’s side as well. The Polish prodigy, Iga Świątek, won her second French Open, at 21, with a fortnight of mastery that, to put it simply, no one could touch. Even the American teen sensation, Cori (Coco) Gauff, whom it would have been reasonable to expect to give Miss Świątek a close call, was trashed 6-1, 6-3 in the final, which also represented the young Pole’s 35th consecutive win, almost every single one of them — you can look it up — in straights. The mighty Iga at the moment seems absolutely best on the women’s Tour, with an attacking game based on consistent service, relentlessly accurate power shots to any spot on her opponents’ baselines, and an eagerness to run down every rally and finish it.
Cori Gauff was gracious in defeat; Iga Świątek too, in victory, and although it is not usually recommended to bring politics into sports, yet she had a few words for Ukraine at the end, and no doubt she meant them, and they meant more than any speech would have.
A great show all around, then. If it was slightly marred by a bit of gamesmanship on a couple occasions, it was sports as sports should be — in sharp contrast to the fiasco of a French soccer team benching one of its best players for refusing to wear a queer-day uniform, required as the soccer establishment copy-cats some of our own big leagues in bowing to the lunacies of political correctness. The foolishness was not helped along by fiasco at the final of the League of Champions, which took place in the big (80,000 seats) Stade de France stadium in a Paris suburb.
This was, more or less, the equivalent to the NBA finals; originally the designated venue would have been St. Petersburg, but the Euro sports bigs are striking a blow for Ukraine by picking on Russian athletes and fans: no games in Russian stadia, no Russians at Wimbledon (they were permitted to play in Paris), and no doubt this will make Vladimir Putin reconsider his war policies.
The two finalists, Real Madrid and Liverpool, were therefore meeting in Saint-Denis, which, notwithstanding its name and history (it is the historic burial place of the kings of France), is a place rife with gangs with little respect for a great event like a football championship. Young predators showed up at the stadium when the word got out that there was a foul up with the tickets and thousands of fans, many of whom had come from England and Spain, were standing in line, frustrated but patiently trusting the confusion would be fixed and their reserved tickets approved.
The gangs began doing what gangs do, and they kept it up until the riot police arrived to help the outnumbered and hapless beat policemen on the scene. And to top it off, the minister of the interior, without waiting for an investigation, publicly blamed English football hooligans for the disturbances, which ended with considerable damage and arrests, adding for what it was worth that British contraband tickets were the cause of the confusion at the gates. Nor did he apologize when this was proven to be a false accusation.
The tennis tournament, and particularly its winners, showed that class acts can still be found in France, as elsewhere, including on our own home grounds. But they increasingly seem exceptional, instead of normal.