Rafael Nadal: the ‘villain’ has become a hero in his own right
Sunday’s French Open final didn’t really tell us anything new about Rafael Nadal — it enhanced his reputation as the best clay court player in history, while making the honour roll at Roland Garros appear ridiculous considering that the Spaniard has now won the tournament 11 times in the last 14 years. But there was still something extraordinary, and new, about how Nadal added to his legend over the past fortnight in Paris.
As domineering champions grow older, there is a certain nostalgic fervour that accompanies each of their victories. At the same time, there is the clamour for a worthy challenger, a surprise winner who can start scripting his own success story, a usurper who will end the tyranny. At 32, Nadal is not yet in decline, but there was a sense over the last few seasons that his star was just starting to fade. There were some injuries, some upset defeats, and slowly a narrative was building that Nadal was on the verge of being knocked off the pedestal by the next generation.
In some ways, Nadal’s opponent on Sunday — 24-year-old Dominic Thiem from Austria — fit the bill as the giant-killer. A clay court specialist who had made the semi-finals at Paris over the last two years, and the final this time around; someone who had beaten Nadal on clay three times in the past, though never in a five-setter. The final could have been an apt stage for Nadal to pass the torch. But on Sunday, the king of clay chose to wield it like a weapon, and instead of handing the torch over, used it to singe the young pretender.
Nadal had broken on the scene in 2005 as the new supervillain of tennis to counter its resident superhero Roger Federer. For the last 14 years, he hasn’t relented. Their head-to-head tally stands at 23-15 in Nadal’s favour. And if Federer had 20 Grand Slam titles, Nadal is breathing down his neck again with 17. In the process of being embroiled in the greatest and longest-running rivalry in tennis, the villain has become a hero in his own right.