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Rafael Nadal — gracious, charming and brilliant — is the best of tennis

Rafael Nadal won his 22nd Grand Slam title at the French Open. (Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)
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When Rafael Nadal burst onto the tennis scene by winning the French Open in 2005, the consensus was that he was another in the long line of great clay-court players, men who could dominate on the red surface of Roland Garros but were often vulnerable on faster surfaces.

Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander, truly great clay-court (and hard-court) players, never won Wimbledon. On the flip side, Hall of Famers Pete Sampras, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg could never figure out the red clay.

Bjorn Borg, who won in Paris six times, also won Wimbledon five times — but never the U.S. Open or Australian Open. Rod Laver won on grass and clay and no doubt would have on hard courts had majors been played on them during his career. Laver could have won playing on an ice-skating rink.

Sampras won 14 major titles but never got to the final in Paris. Before Sampras came along, Roy Emerson held the record for men’s Grand Slam singles titles at 12.

On Sunday, Nadal won one for the 14th time — in Paris. His record in French Open finals is 14-0 after his crushing 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 victory over Casper Ruud. Ruud, 23, led 3-1 in the second set before Nadal took his game to another level, winning the final 11 games of the match. The Norwegian didn’t play poorly the first two sets, but he had no chance. Nadal winning in Paris on the tournament’s final Sunday is as assured as summer rain in London. It is inevitable.

Rafael Nadal defeats Casper Ruud for 14th French Open title

This time, Nadal’s toughest match came in the quarterfinals, where he won a four-hour-plus classic over fellow all-time great Novak Djokovic. That match should have been the final, but no one in tennis ever thinks. So Nadal, who has missed time with injuries this year, was the No. 5 seed because God forbid anyone should fail to follow the rankings.

Seeding Nadal No. 5 in Paris is roughly the same as telling Tiger Woods to go play the minor league Korn Ferry Tour — after he won his first Masters by 12 shots.

Nadal, in any case, long ago proved he was far more than a clay-court specialist. His victory Sunday was his 22nd Grand Slam title, putting him two in front of Djokovic and Roger Federer. If you held a final vote for the greatest player of all time today, Nadal, who turned 36 on Friday, would have to be No. 1.

Statistics are overused, but a handful of Nadal’s numbers go beyond breathtaking. He is 112-3 at Roland Garros, but he also has won eight majors off the red clay: two Australian Opens, two Wimbledons and four U.S. Opens. That’s as many majors as icons Connors, Andre Agassi and Lendl each won total — and one more than McEnroe.

What’s most fascinating about all of this is that, last fall, the title of greatest player ever was more or less ceded to Djokovic. He had beaten Nadal on his way to winning in Paris in June and had gone on to win at Wimbledon in July, putting him in a three-way tie with Nadal and Federer with 20 major victories.

Federer turned 40 in August and had lost in the Wimbledon quarterfinals to Hubert Hurkacz in straight sets — including 6-0 in the third. He then announced that he needed knee surgery again and hoped to play in 2022. He still hasn’t played, and as McEnroe noted on the NBC telecast Sunday, there’s a good chance we will never see him in a major championship again.

After his 2021 semifinal loss to Djokovic at Roland Garros, Nadal pulled out of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open with a recurring foot issue. Many wondered whether his career also might be over.

Djokovic’s path to a 21st major victory and the record in major wins appeared clear. He was 34, healthy and going for a calendar Grand Slam in New York. His two great rivals were older and injured. But then Daniil Medvedev whipped him in the U.S. Open final, and his refusal to be vaccinated in the midst of the pandemic got him deported before the Australian Open.

Nadal then came from two sets down in the Australian Open final against Medvedev and became the first man to get to 21 major wins. On Sunday, he got to 22 — and, apparently, at 36, is still counting. He’s now halfway to a calendar Grand Slam, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished on the men’s side since Laver did it in 1969 at a time when three of the four majors were still played on grass.

Djokovic, who has won at Wimbledon six times, will no doubt be poised to take him down there. And although Nadal won one of the two greatest matches of all time (along with McEnroe-Borg in 1980) in the 2008 final at the All England Club, grass is still the toughest surface for him because he can’t wear opponents down the way he does in Paris — and to a lesser extent in New York and Melbourne — over shorter rallies and shorter matches.

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That is a discussion for another day. Sunday was a day to revel in Nadal’s extraordinary career, his ability to come back time and again — whether from injury or from a point in which his opponent appeared to be in control. That’s the greatness of Nadal: You can get him down, but it is almost impossible to get him out.

At one point late in Sunday’s match, as Nadal went through his meticulous pre-point routine — drying his hand and racket on a towel, walking to the precise point where he wanted to receive, wiping his brow and then, finally, standing in position to receive — NBC’s Dan Hicks commented on the consistency of that intricate routine.

“Once the point starts, though,” Mary Carillo said, “what he does is very simple.”

Indeed it is: hit the ball, then hit it again and again and again until the point is won. We have seen it for 17 years, and even though his matches sometimes seem to go on forever, it never gets old.

What’s more, in a sport that has often lacked grace in its champions, Nadal is never anything but gracious in victory and defeat. He finished his victory speech Sunday by thanking the fans in French, which the crowd adored. He is as charming as he is brilliant.

One of the French Open’s sweetest traditions is to play the winner’s national anthem after he or she has been handed the trophy — in the case of the men’s singles winner, the Coupe des Mousquetaires, named for the four French Davis Cup stars of the 1920s. Nadal has now heard his anthem played on a French Open Sunday 14 times. The emotion on his face made it clear that he still revels in every victory.

As should we all.

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