Rafael Nadal, a French Open champion for the 14th time at 36, is, in obvious ways, different from Rafael Nadal, a French Open champion for the first time all the way back in 2005 at age 19.
His hair is thinning on top. The chartreuse T-shirt he wore while overwhelming Casper Ruud 6-3 6-3 6-0 in Sunday’s intriguing-for-a-handful-of-minutes final 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.
The 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 him from side to side, forward and backward, speeding to, and redirecting, balls off an opponent’s racquet 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.
It was the same on Sunday afternoon, even while competing on a left foot he described as feeling “asleep” because of injections to deal with chronic pain.
Clouds overhead at the start gave way to the sunlight and blue sky Nadal prefers just as Ruud’s 3-1 lead in the second set suddenly began to evaporate in what would become a match-closing 11-game run for the champion.
Nadal’s victory came two days after his 36th birthday and made him the oldest title winner in the history of the clay-court tournament.
Given his age, and, of more concern, the foot that has been an off-and-on problem for years, and particularly in recent weeks, Nadal has said repeatedly that he could can never be sure whether each match at Court Philippe Chatrier might be his last.
“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.”
Later, he said he played the match with “no feeling in” his left foot after getting an “injection on the nerve.”
Yet he played so crisply and cleanly, accumulating more than twice as many winners as Ruud, 37 to 16.
He also committed fewer unforced errors, making just 16 to Ruud’s 26.
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 slams than Nadal.
Doesn’t really seem much reason for Nadal to quit now, considering that he navigated his way past four French Open opponents ranked in the top 10.
He improved to 14-0 in finals at Roland Garros and 112-3 overall at his favourite tournament.
“You are a true inspiration for me, for everyone who follows tennis around the world,” said Ruud, a 23-year-old Norwegian participating in his first grand slam final.
“So I hope – we all hope – that you will continue for some more time.”
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.
“We all know what a champion you are, and today I got to feel how it is to play against you in a final. And it’s not easy,” Ruud said, who later admitted the feeling of playing Nadal was akin to being eaten alive.
“I’m not the first victim. I know that there have been many before.”