Rafael Nadal's painful left foot was numbed by multiple injections to two nerves throughout the French Open, the only way he has found to deal with a chronic condition he acknowledges puts his tennis future in doubt. At any other tournament, Nadal said, he would not have persisted through what he called such “extreme conditions.” Also read:Nadal improves to 18-0 with win over Opelka at Indian Wells Ah, but five simple words uttered after he strung together the last 11 games of a 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 victory over an overwhelmed Casper Ruud in Sunday's intriguing-for-a-handful-of-minutes final at Court Philippe Chatrier explained Nadal's mindset: “Roland Garros is Roland Garros.” And so even if Nadal, a French Open champion for the 14th time now at age 36, is in obvious ways different from Nadal, a French Open champion for the first time all the way back in 2005 at age 19, that desire to give his all, no matter what, to “find solutions" — one of his oft-used phrases — remains the same. He is the oldest champion in the history of a tournament that began in 1925, and his hair is thinning on top. The chartreuse T-shirt he wore Sunday had sleeves, unlike his biceps-baring look of nearly two decades ago. The white capri pants that ran below his knees back in the day were long since traded in for more standard shorts; Sunday’s were turquoise. Here’s what hasn’t changed along the way to his 22 Grand Slam titles in all, another record, in addition to his between-point mannerisms and meticulous attention paid to the must-be-just-so placement of water bottles and towels: That lefty uppercut of a topspin-slathered, high-bouncing forehand still finds the mark much more frequently than it misses, confounding foes. That ability to read serves and return them with a purpose still stings. That never-concede-a-thing attitude propelling Nadal from side to side, forward and backward, speeding to, and redirecting, balls off an opponent’s racket seemingly destined to be unreachable. Nadal is nothing if not indefatigable, just as he was in consecutive four-hour-plus victories earlier in the tournament — including against Novak Djokovic, the defending champion and No. 1 seed — and again on this afternoon, even while competing on a foot devoid of any feeling. “When you are playing defensive against Rafa on clay,” said Ruud, a 23-year-old Norwegian who was participating in his first major final, "he will eat you alive." Nadal said afterward he will try other methods of helping his foot — including, even, a way “to burn, a little bit, the nerve” — over the next week to see whether that might allow him to enter Wimbledon, where he has won two of his men’s-record 22 Grand Slam titles. Play begins at the All England Club on June 27. If these new treatments do not work, Nadal said, then he will need to consider having what he termed major surgery — and, eventually, a “decision about what’s the next step in my future.” “It’s obvious that with the circumstances that I am playing (in),” Nadal said, “I can’t and I don’t want to keep going.” During the trophy ceremony, Nadal thanked his family and support team, including a doctor who accompanied him to Paris, for helping him, because otherwise he would have needed to “retire much before.” “I don’t know what can happen in the future,” Nadal told the crowd, “but I’m going to keep fighting to try to keep going.” He played so crisply and cleanly Sunday, accumulating more than twice as many winners as Ruud, 37 to 16. Nadal also committed fewer unforced errors, making just 16 to Ruud’s 26. After trailing 3-1 in the second set, Nadal would not cede another game. Also read: Spanish Tennis Maestro Rafael Nadal Wins Record 21 Grand Slam Titles “After that moment,” Nadal said, “everything went very smooth.” Sure did. The view from the other side of the net? “I’m just another one of the victims," Ruud said, “that he has destroyed on this court.” One of the most indelible memories Ruud will take away from this day was hearing the announcer recite the long list of years Nadal had previously won the French Open: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020. “Never stops, it seems like,” Ruud said. “That takes like half a minute.” When the players met at the net for the prematch coin toss, the first chants of “Ra-fa! Ra-fa!” rang out in the 15,000-seat stadium. Ruud would later hear folks in the stands do drawn-out pronouncements of his last name, so it sounded as if they might be booing. Nadal is 14-0 in finals at Roland Garros, 112-3 overall. When this one ended with a down-the-line backhand from Nadal, he chucked his racket to the red clay he loves so much and covered his face with the taped-up fingers on both of his hands. No man or woman ever has won the singles trophy at any major event more than his 14 in Paris. And no man has won more Grand Slam titles than Nadal. He is two ahead of Roger Federer, who hasn’t played in almost a year after a series of knee operations, and Djokovic, who missed the Australian Open in January because he is not vaccinated against COVID-19. For all that he has accomplished already, Nadal now has done something he never managed previously: He is halfway to a calendar-year Grand Slam thanks to titles at the Australian Open and French Open in the same season. But if he can't play at Wimbledon, which he has won twice, that doesn't really matter much. Ruud considers Nadal his idol. He recalls watching all of Nadal’s past finals in Paris on TV. He has trained at Nadal’s tennis academy in Mallorca. They have played countless practice sets together there with nothing more at stake than bragging rights. Nadal usually won those, and Ruud joked the other day that’s because he was trying to be a polite guest. The two had never met in a real match until Sunday, when a championship, money, ranking points, prestige and a piece of history were on the line. And Nadal demonstrated, as he has so often, why he’s known as the King of Clay — and among the game’s greatest ever. “It’s something that I, for sure, never believed — to be here at 36, being competitive again, playing in the most favorite court of my career, one more time in the final," Nadal said. "It means a lot to me. Means everything.”
Why is the French Open more likely to produce first-time and one-time Grand Slam champions than the Australian Open, Wimbledon or the U.S. Open? Why are there so many surprising results at Roland Garros? What distinguishes its red clay from the surfaces used at the three other major tennis tournaments? THE CLAY The French Open is the only Grand Slam tournament held on clay courts — which actually aren’t made of clay, but rather the dust from red brick on top of a layer of crushed white limestone. Wimbledon, which begins this year on June 27, is famously contested on grass. The U.S. Open, which starts on Aug. 29, and Australian Open, held in January, each uses a different type of hard court. The softness and speed-absorbing grab of clay courts slow down shots more than the other surfaces do, dulling speedy serves and groundstrokes. The clay’s grittiness magnifies the effect of heavy spin (think of 13-time Roland Garros champion Rafael Nadal’s uppercut lefty forehands), creating higher arcs as the balls rebound off the ground. “Clay is a completely different surface from hard courts and grass,” said Tamara Zidansek, who reached the semifinals in Paris a year ago while ranked 85th. “It’s such a specific surface.” Because booming serves and quick-strike forehands relied on by so many players are not as effective on clay as hard or grass courts, there is an increased reward for strategy, for switching speeds and spins, for drop shots. Read: Asia Cup Hockey: Bangladesh suffer 0-8 defeat to Pakistan “On clay, you have to hit a lot of balls to win matches. If you’re not quite 100 percent confident, it really shows up,” said International Tennis Hall of Fame member Martina Navratilova, who won two of her 18 Grand Slam titles at the French Open. “It’s harder to win matches when you’re not playing well.” Katerina Siniakova, a Grand Slam doubles champion who beat then-No. 1 Naomi Osaka in the third round in Paris while ranked 42nd in 2019, described the effect of clay this way: “You have to really win the point. It’s not as easy as the hard courts to win a point, because it’s not so fast. A more creative player can play better on clay and use it as an advantage for them. You can’t use as much slice or drop shots on hard courts.” ENDURANCE Points tend to be longer. So do matches: Women’s matches in Paris last year averaged 1 hour, 39 minutes, 42 seconds; that’s 3 minutes longer than at the U.S. Open, more than 6 minutes longer than at the Australian Open, and more than 8 minutes longer than at Wimbledon. Men’s matches — which are best-of-five-sets; women’s are best-of-three — averaged 2 hours, 39 minutes, 24 seconds in 2021, 11 minutes longer than at the Australian Open and 6 minutes longer than at Wimbledon. Matches at the 2021 U.S. Open averaged 2 hours, 50 minutes, 35 seconds, but were shorter than at Roland Garros in previous years over the past decade. THE ELEMENTS All surfaces can be effected by the temperature, but clay courts tend to alter more in extreme heat and cold — Nadal’s quarterfinal win over No. 1 seed and defending champion Novak Djokovic in Paris on Tuesday night was contested with the temperature in the 50s Fahrenheit (teens Celsius) — or on a damp or breezy day. “Grass does change a little, but I feel like the clay is alive. You have to play with it,” said Felix Auger-Aliassime, a semifinalist at last year’s U.S. Open. “Sometimes the clay is more dry and the bounce is going to be different. Other weeks, it’s very humid and very soft and it plays differently. The whole clay swing, from one week to another, the conditions change a lot.” Read: Maharashtra Int'l GM Chess: Bangladeshi GM Enamul Hossain Razib shares 3rd place It can be as simple as wind blowing dust off the top of the court at Roland Garros, creating patches that are thicker or thinner. “I feel like people sometimes forget, because it’s red and it looks the same, but they don’t see the amount of clay,” said Tokyo Olympics gold medalist Belinda Bencic, who grew up mostly playing on indoor hard courts in Switzerland. “They don’t see how it changes. They don’t see how fast it is or how hard. You can’t see that on TV.” MOVEMENT Footwork is crucial on clay, which allows players to slide into shots. The trick is to do that properly. Bencic, for example, says her open-stance way of hitting and lack of play on clay growing up make that aspect harder for her. “My movement is not really made for clay. I have a huge advantage on grass because of my stance,” she said. “I have to think about it on clay. It doesn’t come naturally.” THE SPECIALISTS Some players, particularly from Europe or South America, learn the sport on clay. Folks agree that can be a significant advantage. “You get a lot of guys that it is ... their ‘home’ surface, kind of what they grew up playing on. That’s what suits their game and so they’re much more comfortable on it than I am,” said Taylor Fritz, an American seeded 13th in Paris who lost to Bernabe Zapata Miralles, a Spanish qualifier ranked outside the top 125. “And maybe I wouldn’t lose to lots of these people on a hard court, but on a clay court, on any given day, there’s definitely more people that I could lose to.” THE SEASON There are far fewer events on clay than hard courts. The ATP calendar for 2022 includes 39 tournaments on hard courts, 12 on clay and eight on grass. The current WTA program for this season shows 30 on hard courts, 14 on clay and seven on grass. So it stands to reason that pros might prefer to focus their efforts on the more frequently used surfaces. Also, as Djokovic explained, there is an adjustment when the European clay-court circuit that leads up to the French Open arrives. “Historically it always has required some time and several tournaments to really feel comfortable playing on clay,” he said. “Rarely did I feel my best on clay in the first or second tournament in the season.”
Novak Djokovic is optimistic about his game going into the French Open despite going another week without a title. The top-ranked Djokovic is yet to win a trophy this season while trying to regain his best form after not being allowed to play in the Australian Open because he was not vaccinated for COVID-19. Also read: Djokovic heads for Belgrade after deportation from Australia Djokovic lost to young sensation Carlos Alcaraz in three sets in the semifinals of the Madrid Open on Saturday, when he was trying to make it to his second consecutive final after losing to Andrey Rublev in Serbia last month. Despite the loss, Djokovic said he leaves Madrid feeling good about his preparations for the upcoming French Open, where he will defend his title. “I definitely played very good tennis, I mean, the best that I have played this year,” Djokovic said. “Probably when the disappointment of losing this match passes, I will have a lot of positives to take away from this week.” Djokovic said he felt he could have come away with the victory against the 19-year-old Alcaraz — one the hottest players on tour this season — if he had been “able to capitalize when it mattered” during the match of more than 3 1/2 hours at the “Caja Mágica” center court. The Madrid Open was only his fourth tournament of the year, and third on clay. He lost to 29th-ranked Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in his first match in Monte Carlo in his only other Masters 1000 appearance so far. Djokovic did not play in Indian Wells and Miami. He will carry an 8-4 record on the season into Rome this week, with one of those victories coming after Andy Murray withdrew from their third-round match in Madrid because of a stomach illness. Also read: Double-fault: Visa revoked again, Djokovic faces deportation Djokovic had opened his campaign in the Spanish capital with a two-set win over Gael Monfils. He comfortably defeated Hubert Hurkacz in two sets in the quarterfinals. The 34-year-old Djokovic said after the match against Monfils it was “his best performance of the year” considering he hadn’t played well and lacked rhythm in the few tournaments he had played. Djokovic had reached the quarterfinals in the only other tournament he played this year, losing to 72nd-ranked Jiri Vesely in Dubai in February. The goal now is preparing to do well in Roland Garros, where he will try to win his third French Open. “I think it’s on the good path, definitely,” he said.
Talented and tenacious as they come, Novak Djokovic was not about to concede a thing after dropping the first two sets of the French Open final against his younger, fresher foe, Stefanos Tsitsipas. Djokovic looked diminished and depleted at the outset Sunday. By the end, he was at his imperious best. Aided by flawless serving down the stretch, the top-seeded Djokovic came all the way back to beat Tsitsipas 6-7 (6), 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 for his second championship at Roland Garros and 19th Grand Slam title overall. “I don’t want to stop there,” said Djokovic, who spread his arms, then tapped his chest and crouched to touch the red clay at Court Philippe Chatrier after ending the match with a leaping volley. Read:Inspired by Novotna, Krejcikova wins 1st Slam title in Paris As things stand, Djokovic is just one major trophy away from tying the men’s record of 20 career Grand Slams shared by Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer and will get his first chance to pull even with his rivals at Wimbledon, which starts in two weeks. Djokovic became one of only three men — alongside Rod Laver and Roy Emerson — to have won each major tournament at least twice. And now, as the reigning champion at the Australian Open and French Open, Djokovic can set his sights on another rare achievement: He is halfway to joining Laver (1962 and 1969) and Don Budge (1938) as the only men with a calendar-year Grand Slam. The 34-year-old Djokovic eliminated 13-time French Open champion Nadal — a challenge the Serb likened to scaling Mt. Everest — in a semifinal that lasted more than four hours Friday night. That was only Nadal’s third career loss in 108 matches at the clay-court major tournament. Djokovic also had defeated Nadal in the 2015 quarterfinals in Paris before losing that year’s final, and it appeared as if the same fate was waiting Sunday. That’s because Djokovic looked drained early. The 22-year-old Tsitsipas had the upper hand for two sets. “It was not easy for me,” Djokovic said, “both physically and mentally.” Eventually, though, he got his best-in-the-game returning on track and, remarkably, did not face even one break point over the last three sets. That enabled Djokovic to complete his sixth career comeback from two sets down — and second of the past week. Read:Serena Williams loses at French Open; Federer withdraws The International Tennis Federation said Djokovic — who trailed 19-year-old Lorenzo Musetti two sets to none in the fourth round — is the first man in the professional era to win a Grand Slam tournament after twice facing a 2-0 deficit in sets. “Suddenly just felt cold and out of it,” Tsitsipas said. “It was difficult to readjust. I felt like I kind of lost my game a little bit. I really wish I could understand why things like this happened and evolved.” Experience could have been a factor, too. This was the first major final for Tsitsipas and the 29th for Djokovic, who also won the French Open in 2016, to go with nine titles at the Australian Open, five at Wimbledon and three at the U.S. Open. Of just as much, if not more, significance to the ultimate outcome: Djokovic is 35-10 in five-setters — including a men’s-record 32 wins at majors — while Tsitsipas is 5-5. “What I learned today is that no matter what, in order for the match to be finished, you have to win three sets and not two,” said Tsitsipas, who was trying to become the first Greek to win a major singles title. “Two sets doesn’t really mean anything.” He needed just about 100 minutes to grab his big lead on a sunny, breezy afternoon with the temperature approaching 80 degrees Fahrenheit (over 25 degrees Celsius) and attendance limited to 5,000, about a third of the stadium capacity, because of COVID-19 restrictions. The footing on clay can be tricky, and both men took first-set tumbles. Djokovic’s left him prone on the sideline after a head-first fall near a net post. Tsitsipas slipped by the baseline, smearing his white shirt and purple shorts with the rust-colored surface. Read:Sponsors hail Naomi Osaka’s ‘courage’ on mental health While Djokovic switched tops soon after his spill, Tsitsipas kept his dirty clothes on — as if he viewed the mess as a badge of honor — until after losing the third set, when he requested a visit from a trainer to help him with a tight hip. By then, the momentum had changed. And Tsitsipas never could recover, mainly because he never made any headway in Djokovic’s service games. The first set was tight as can be: Tsitsipas won 43 points, Djokovic 42. Seeming surprisingly shaken, Djokovic began the second set with a double-fault and a swinging forehand volley that landed way long, then got broken with a wild forehand miss. Tsitsipas broke again to lead 5-2 in that set, and Djokovic pressed a white towel against his face at the ensuing changeover. Trying to cool off? Perhaps. Trying to reset himself? Probably. After the second set, Djokovic headed off for one of each player’s two allotted locker room breaks. The match was never quite the same; Tsitsipas thought Djokovic’s anticipation and movement improved. “I kind of felt like he could read my game a bit better, suddenly,” Tstitsipas said. “Good for him.” Read:Nadal beats a tired Djokovic for 10th Italian Open title A supreme returner and imposer of his will, Djokovic accrued early breaks of serve in each of the third, fourth and fifth sets. Shadows were spreading across the court as the sun descended in the early evening and, though Djokovic complained to chair umpire Aurélie Tourte that the artificial lights were switched on, he shined when it mattered the most. This was another match that lasted more than four hours, and Djokovic was up to the task again. “The atmosphere was amazing against Rafa and today against Stefanos,” Djokovic said. “I will definitely remember these last 48 hours for the rest of my life.”
A few years ago, a star athlete dropping out of a major tennis tournament over mental health issues might have been seen as a sign of weakness. Today, at least for Naomi Osaka’s corporate sponsors, it is being hailed as refreshingly honest. That would explain why so many of them have stuck by Osaka after the four-time Grand Slam champion announced Monday that she was withdrawing from the French Open because she didn’t want to appear for the requisite news conferences that caused her “huge waves of anxiety.” Osaka, who also acknowledged suffering “long bouts of depression,” received criticism by some who say the media events are just “ part of the job. ” But Nike, Sweetgreen and other sponsors put out statements in support of the 23-year-old star after she revealed her struggles. Read: Naomi Osaka wins 2nd US Open title “Our thoughts are with Naomi,” Nike said in a statement. “We support her and recognize her courage in sharing her own mental health experience.” Sweetgreen tweeted that its partnership with Osaka “is rooted in wellness in all its forms.” And Mastercard tweeted: “Naomi Osaka’s decision reminds us all how important it is to prioritize personal health and well-being.” Allen Adamson, co-founder of marketing consultancy Metaforce, said that Osaka’s disclosure has made her a more authentic spokesperson — and more valuable to corporate sponsors. “Every athlete gets a sports sponsorship because they win games or perform well,” he said. “But the best ones become true brand ambassadors when they have a broader persona. The best brand ambassadors are real people. (Osaka) is talking about an issue that is relevant to many people. Mental health is a bigger issue than winning or losing tennis.” Reilly Opelka, a 23-year-old American tennis player seeded 32nd at the French Open who plays his third-round match Friday, told The Associated Press he’s glad Osaka “is taking time to get better.” “She’s one of the best players in the world — she’s very influential,” Opelka said. “The sport needs her. She’s an icon. It’s bad for the sport to have one of the main attractions not around.” Osaka, who was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father, moved to the United States with her family when she was 3, and now lives in Los Angeles. She has taken a leading role in protesting the deaths last year of George Floyd and other Black people who died at the hands of the police, wearing a mask with a different victim’s name on each match day at the 2020 U.S. Open. She was named the 2020 AP Female Athlete of the Year. Read: Naomi Osaka wins 1st-round match at Brisbane International According to Forbes, Osaka is the world’s highest-paid woman athlete, earning $37 million in 2020 from blue-chip sponsors such as Tag Heuer, AirBnB, and Louis Vuitton in addition to Mastercard and Nike. Nike has stood by sports stars after other controversies, including Tiger Woods after his 2009 sex scandal and former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick after he knelt during games to protest police brutality against Black people. But it recently dropped Brazilian soccer star Neymar after he refused to cooperate with an internal investigation into sexual assault allegations from a Nike staffer. Osaka’s disclosure comes as celebrities and other public figures openly address their own issues with depression and anxiety. Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, shared their experiences in a televised interview with Oprah Winfrey and have since teamed with her to create a mental health focused series called “The Me You Can’t See,” in which Prince Harry talks about working through anxiety and grief. Osaka also joins a growing list of top-tier athletes speaking out about mental health. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, NBA players Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan, and the WNBA’s A’ja Wilson have all spoken very publicly about their bouts with depression, sharing both the successes and setbacks. The four Grand Slam tournaments reacted to Osaka’s withdrawal by pledging to do more to address players’ mental health issues. The episode also could serve as a tipping point for the professional tennis tours — and leagues in other sports — to safeguard athletes’ mental, and not just physical, health, said Windy Dees, professor of sport administration at the University of Miami. “It’s absolutely a growth opportunity for the (Women’s Tennis Association) and all leagues, there’s a lot of work to be done,” Dees said. Marketing consultant Adamson believes Osaka’s decision to come forward will encourage many more athletes to divulge their own mental health battles. He noted that if Osaka had revealed her bouts with depression 10 years ago, her corporate sponsors likely would have stayed on the sidelines because the issue had been taboo. But, he noted, the pandemic has raised awareness around mental illness. Read: Naomi Osaka's knee injury brings uncertainty to US Open From August 2020 to February, the percentage of adults with recent symptoms of an anxiety or a depressive disorder increased from 36.4% to 41.5%, according to a survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Census Bureau. The survey also found the percentage of those reporting they didn’t get the help they needed increased from 9.2% to 11.7%. Increases were largest among adults aged 18–29 years and those with less than a high school education. Ken Duckworth, chief medical officer for the National Alliance On Mental Illness, said Osaka’s decision to go public is a positive development for all people who feel isolated. “We are moving from mental health and mental illness as a ‘they” thing to a ‘we’ thing,” he said. “These are ordinary common human problems. And I firmly believe that isolation and shame directly contributes to people not getting help. I look at a great athlete, an exceptional athlete, as one potential role model.”
“First of all, I’m not very good at speeches,” Swiatek began, haltingly, “so, sorry, because I won my last tournament like two years ago, and I really don’t know who to thank.” When she’s got a racket in her hand, it’s a whole different story. With the poise of a veteran and the shots of a champion, Swiatek wrapped up a dominating run at Roland Garros, grabbing the last six games to beat Sofia Kenin 6-4, 6-1