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Why is Rafael Nadal so good on the clay in Paris? What can Ash Barty's victory teach us about mental health? Wrapping up the 2019 French Open.

By Jon Wertheim
June 10, 2019

On the latest edition of the Beyond the Baseline Podcast, host Jon Wertheim and Jamie Lisanti recap and review the 2019 French Open, after two weeks on the clay in Paris concluded with Rafael Nadal winning his 12th Roland Garros and 23-year-old Ash Barty capturing her first major Grand Slam title. What are the biggest takeways from the second major of the year? Wertheim and Lisanti talk about what they learned, including: what Nadal's victory means in terms of tennis history and what it says about the Big Three's dominance over men's tennis for the past decade; what Ash Barty's two-year break from tennis before surging to win Roland Garros says about burnout and mental health in tennis; how the sport and the major tournaments can fix the problem with empty seats at majors; plus, way-too-early picks for Wimbledon 2019 and much more.

Listen to the Beyond the Baseline podcast here and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or on Stitcher.​​​​ The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jamie Lisanti: Someone tell me what the secret is. Why is Rafael Nadal so damn good at the French Open?

Jon Wertheim: I'm out of explanations. I feel like I’ve exhausted all of the adjectives. In the late 90s, the big question was: Would anybody win 12 majors? Could Pete Sampras do it and tie this record that everybody thought was untouchable? Now we have a guy. First of all, we not only have Pete Sampras but then three players subsequently—not to mention Serena on the women's side. But we have a guy who's won as many French Opens as Emerson won majors. And keep in mind: Nadal was one break in the fifth set against Federer two years ago from winning the Australian Open which would have given him the double career slam. So it's not as though he's only doing this on clay.

I got nothing for you. It's the offense. It's the defense. I think he really benefits from best-of-five. I just think the way he approaches the sport, his short term memory—I mean every locker room cliché: the never say die attitude and the heart of a champion. All that is expressed in a best-of-five match in a way that maybe it isn't in best of three.

We were here maybe six weeks ago. Right. And we were saying, the wheels seem to have come off and when you looked at the matches that he had lost on clay in the lead up in the lead up. Then he plays well in Rome and gets a tired Djokovic to the final of Rome. So that's some nice momentum going in. And then he played so well in those seven matches. I've never seen him play better than in the last hour that match.

JL: I said this when we did our preview right before the tournament. But when you see qualifier and then qualifier for Nadal after the lead up that he had I literally said to you: how could you not pick against him? I just don't know how someone across the net cannot take that into consideration. For Thiem, the only thing I felt like he could really latch on to in this final was just belief, because the only person that I think can really ever beat Rafa in that scenario is somebody that just—I know it's like it's another cliché—but someone who just has nothing to lose and just really goes out there and has just no opinion or no idea of the historical impact and everything that Rafa has in Paris.

JW: I think Rafa can beat Rafa sometimes. There are countless angles we can take here. I'll give you a few. One of them is just this absolute self-belief that seems to have come very quickly. This was a guy that had a brutal loss in the Australian Open final to Djokovic and had a very quiet injury-plagued spring and was not his usual peerless self in the lead-ins. And then he gets to that event and he just has unshakable confidence. I think you raise a really good point which is the fact that he got there he played two fewer hours than Thiem. He hadn't had physically taxing matches. He didn't have emotionally taxing matches. I think the fact that he didn't expend much mental energy was relevant too.

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The Big Three—they just keep going. Bless Dominic Thiem—and I think he did make some progress. He reached the final last year and reached the final this year, so he didn't pick up any ranking points but I think this was progress. But he you know he mustered one set against Nadal, but Djokovic, Federer and Nadal, they are going as strong as ever. This is the 10th straight major that one of the three of them won. A few years ago it was “oh the Big Three is starting to come undone and you knew it had to happen and great one while it lasted but now move over boys here comes the new generation.”

I leave this tournament thinking that Nadal is head and shoulders above the field on clay. Djokovic is head and shoulders above the field on hard courts. One of the three of them on grass. This is the Big Three Era. These guys right now at ages 37 and 33 for Rafa and 32 for Djokovic, these guys have as much a stronghold on men's tennis now as they did 10 years ago. I mean it is just incredible: three of the four semifinalists We. almost had a Djokovic-Nadal final. This Big Three is just extraordinary.

JL: Is anyone going to ever be a better clay court player than Rafael Nadal? Would you say now: He is the greatest ever on clay?

JW: Greatest ever. The best clay court player ever.

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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)