PARIS – He fooled us again, which is, in itself, quite a feat at this stage of the game.
Perhaps Rafael Nadal really means it when he talks down his chances at Roland Garros, and there was certainly no fakery involved last month when he limped and grimaced through the final set of an early-round defeat at 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 without any European clay-court titles this season as the tournament began.
But there is no tonic quite like Parisian red clay for Nadal. And on Sunday, after working his way through a loaded top half of the draw, he was much too much, even at less than his best, for the No. 8 seed Casper Ruud in 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 at the tournament, extending a French Open record that looks more unbeatable with every passing spring.
He also extended his lead in the three-way majors race with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. Nadal now has a men’s record 22 Grand Slam singles titles, two more than Djokovic, whom Nadal beat in the quarterfinals here, and Federer, who at age 40 is still 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.
So many records. So much enduring excellence, and Ruud, an affable 23-year-old Norwegian, certainly needed no reminder of his opponent’s achievements as he walked into the Philippe Chatrier Court as the first Norwegian man to play in a Grand Slam singles final.
Ruud, who broke into the top 10 last year, has had two main role models as he emerged from a nation better known for excelling on snow than on clay. There was his father, Christian, who coached him and was tour-level player ranked as high as No. 39 in 1995. And there was Nadal, with his extreme topspin forehand and hard-wired combativeness.
He began training regularly 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, thinking he was in for a relaxed experience only to discover that Nadal’s competitive streak was not restricted to the tennis court.
But Sunday was Ruud’s first chance to face Nadal on tour.
“We all know what a champion you are and today I got to feel how it is to play against you in the final,” Ruud told the crowd after the match. “It’s not easy, I’m not the first victim.”
And that was before the final. He surely has not changed his mind now.