Ahead of playing another French Open final on Sunday afternoon, Rafael Nadal was asked one of those “Would you rather?” questions.
Nadal suffers from Mueller-Weiss syndrome, which causes persistent and intractable foot pain. Would he rather win the final or get a new foot?
Nadal chose the foot “without a doubt.”
Fast forward to Nadal’s victory speech. Would Nadal rather keep up the struggle or go out on top?
The 36-year-old Spaniard stuck to pleasantries for most of his remarks. It wasn’t until the last line that he pointed a direction forward.
“I don’t know what can happen in the future,” Nadal said. “But I’m going to keep fighting to keep going.”
Nadal now sits on 22 career Grand Slam titles – more than any other men’s player. Fourteen of those major wins have come at the French Open.
The vast majority of tennis pros don’t last 14 years. It’s possible Nadal’s dominance in Paris may not be the most unmatchable career record in sport, but I’m hard-pressed to think of an alternative.
It’s 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 any in memory, what we did was reinforce the truth of a natural law.
Every sports immortal has a defining characteristic that transcends athletic ability. Ali was charisma more magnetic than either pole. Pele was irrepressible joy. Jordan was unalloyed ruthlessness.
This year, Nadal reminded us of his defining trait – he doesn’t know how to quit.
Lots of pros win when they should. On clay, Nadal wins when he shouldn’t. He wins when he’s really feeling it, when he isn’t and when he spends all two weeks telling people he should probably retire. He wins in the daytime and at night. He wins like the sun rises in the east – always.
And Nadal doesn’t just sneak under the tape to win. He goes through people to get there. It’s possible Nadal’s closest comparison point isn’t Roger Federer. Maybe it’s Secretariat.
The other guy on Sunday – 23-year-old major final debutant Casper Ruud – put it best: “I’m not the first victim.”
At the French, Nadal doesn’t have opponents. He has victims.
Sunday’s final also had a defining characteristic: boredom. As it turned out, everyone was right. The quarter-final against Novak Djokovic was the real final.
This isn’t to suggest the level of tennis on Sunday wasn’t high, just that it was about as well-balanced as someone trying to carry four pints of beer through a crowded bar. A lot of spillage.
The emblematic shot of the match wasn’t a winner. It was Ruud shanking a Nadal serve so badly wide that it nearly knocked the umpire out of his chair. That miss decided the first set.
Throughout, the Norwegian was a man living the “oral exam naked in front of high-school assembly” nightmare, except in real life. The largely silent audience appeared embarrassed on his behalf.
Ruud came on briefly at the beginning of the second set. Despite preferring Nadal, the crowd jumped in to support the newcomer. Roland Garros is a long way to go on a Sunday afternoon to watch two hours of totally one-sided tennis.
Ruud took the lead. Nadal reeled him back in. Ruud wriggled on the line. Nadal kept tugging.
Near the end of this struggle, Ruud glanced up at his box and shrugged. You could see in that gesture the exact moment he gave up. Ruud wouldn’t win another game.
Still, this wasn’t an instance of someone folding up under pressure. This was an example of a man trying to stand upright after being hit by a series of rogue waves. Ruud didn’t lose it. Nadal won it 6-3, 6-3, 6-0.
Perhaps the best way to encapsulate the magnitude of Nadal’s accomplishments at the French Open is to contrast him with this year’s winner on the women’s side, Iga Swiatek. She dropped one set all tournament en route to a controlled demolition of American Coco Gauff in the other final on Saturday.
The 21-year-old Pole has spent the past four months rampaging though the women’s game. She’s won 35 matches in a row. In a recent interview, Naomi Osaka described having a nightmare about playing Swiatek – “I was so scared.” That’s the whole nightmare – playing her.
Swiatek inspires fear after one great run lasting weeks. Nadal’s been doing the same thing since shortly after Facebook was invented. His dominance spans entire eras of our shared cultural history.
Some part of you worries that the cost of so much success is coming due. If we take Nadal at his word, every tournament he plays puts his postcareer health at risk.
“Winning is lovely and it fills you with adrenalin for a short moment, but life goes on,” Nadal told reporters in France. “Life is much more important than whatever title.”
After that lovely bit of philosophy, Nadal contradicted himself by going out there and winning anyway.
We’ll have to trust Nadal that he will know when it has all become too much. We have to hope that there never comes a moment where we see him fall as other greats have – all of a sudden and in confusion.
But we have to understand that that is probably inevitable, and just enjoy him now as he is and on his own terms. Because Nadal doesn’t know how to quit, some force beyond his control will have to quit for him.