At 31 and into his 10th French Open final, Rafael Nadal is playing the best French Open of his career.
PARIS – When the competition started, this juggernaut was the overwhelming favorite to take the title. So much so that fans complained that drama might be bleached from the event. A stretch of unrivaled excellence ensued, a trance of greatness, blow-outs that put the superpower’s various gifts on display. And with one assignation left, the coronation seems less a matter of “if” than of “how.” We speak not of the Golden State Warriors, but of Rafael Nadal at the 2017 French Open.
Nadal blazed his usual trail of destruction through the clay season, winning three titles and losing just one match. That defeat came at the hands (or hand) of Dominic Thiem of Austria. As such, Thiem was thought to represent the best chance of thwarting Nadal’s bid for a 10th French Open title. It seemed all the more possible when Thiem beat Novak Djokovic, the former champ, in the quarterfinals. How dizzyingly high a level has Nadal performed at the French Open? Thiem was less his opponent today than a non-consenting patsy. Nadal broke him and beat him and won 6-3, 6-4, 6-0, a match somehow less close than the lop-sided score indicated.
At 31, Nadal is playing perhaps the finest French Open of his career—which is saying something. He has yet to drop a set. He is winning a higher percentage of his second serve points than his first serve points. He has been playing at an uncharacteristically rapid pace, as if in a rush to get back on the major board for the first time in three years. Now, he’s three sets away.
It’s no Federer-Nadal, but the most textured sub-rivalry in tennis puts Andy Murray against Stan Wawrinka. They’ve each won three major titles. They both would be once-in-a-generation players, were it not for the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic triad. They were at No. 1 and 3 in the seedings entering the 2017 French Open. They added to compendium on Friday.
A rematch of last year’s semifinal—which Murray won in four sets—the two exchange tracer fire, but also nuance and momentum, for four-and-a-half-hours. When Murray failed to close out the match in the fourth set tiebreaker, he had no more ammo left in the chamber. Still well armed, Wawrinka squeezed off another round of aces and winner and closed out a demi-classic 6-7, 6-3, 5-7, 7-6, 6-1. In the end, he didn't just beat Murray; he broke him.
Wawrinka has achieved a great deal in tennis. Three majors, including Roland Garros in 2015. He’s made an enviable habit of playing his best tennis at the biggest events. He’s been particularly strong at the French Open, where’s won 18 of his last 19 matches. One thing he’s never done: lost in a Grand Slam final. He’ll try and keep it that way on Sunday.