PARIS — Rafael Nadal was trying to make the point that time stops for no man.
“You can’t fight against the age,” he said, “and you can’t fight against the watch. The watch keeps going, always.”
No arguing against that sentiment.
Still, it is rather remarkable how Nadal, a French Open champion yet again a week past his 32nd birthday, and Federer, who turns 37 in less than two months, seem to stay forever young. Nadal’s 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 victory over Dominic Thiem, who’s 24, in Sunday’s final gave the Spaniard an 11th title — yes, 11th — at Roland Garros and 17th Grand Slam trophy overall.
At the previous major tournament, the Australian Open in January, Federer won his record 20th such championship.
At the Slam before that, the U.S. Open last September, Nadal was the last man standing.
And so on. Federer or Nadal has won each of the past six major tournaments, equaling their second-longest stretch of dual dominance. Their other six-Slam streak came from 2008-09. Their best run was combining to win 11 consecutive majors starting at the 2005 French Open, when Nadal collected No. 1.
“Sometimes, I see many, many players — even good players, top players — they go on the court against Rafa on clay, or Roger on hard court or any other surface, and you can almost see that they don’t really believe 100 percent that they can win,” said Robin Soderling, who pulled off French Open upsets of Nadal in 2009, and Federer in 2010. “They hope that they will win, but they don’t really believe in it.”
It’s quite a different scene in the women’s game these days.
Simona Halep’s 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 win against Sloane Stephens in Saturday’s final in Paris made the No. 1-ranked Romanian the seventh female champion at the past seven majors. Part of that probably can be traced to Serena Williams’ 16-month absence from the sport’s four most prestigious tournaments because she became a mother.
“Serena being out for the last couple of years has left the door ajar. And there’s been a few young ladies that have come through and had some victories,” said Halep’s coach, Darren Cahill. “Over the next two or three years, we’ve got a lot of strength and depth in the women’s game.”
Halep was a first-time major champion, as were Caroline Wozniacki (2018 Australian Open), Stephens (2017 U.S. Open) and Jelena Ostapenko (2017 French Open).
“We start to believe that anyone can win it,” Halep said.
As much as things change, they stay the same at the top of men’s tennis.
In Monday’s rankings, Nadal is No. 1, Federer is No. 2.
“Ten years ago, it was Rafa and Roger,” Juan Martin del Potro said after losing to Nadal in the French Open semifinals, nine years after he lost to Federer at that stage, “and now it’s always the same.”
Del Potro’s triumph at the 2009 U.S. Open — he got past Nadal in the semifinals, then Federer in the final — stands alongside Marin Cilic’s title at the same tournament as the only two examples of someone other than Federer, Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray or Stan Wawrinka claiming a major over the past 13 years.
Of the past 53, Nadal has won 17, Federer 16, Djokovic 12, and Murray and Wawrinka three apiece.
But at the moment, Murray is still recovering from a hip operation in January and his exact date for a return is unknown. Wawrinka is working his way back from knee surgery and lost in the first round at Roland Garros. Djokovic’s is not yet at his best after an elbow procedure; he lost in the quarterfinals in Paris to a guy who never had won a Grand Slam match before this French Open.
So that leaves Federer and Nadal, healthy and talented as ever.
“This is perfection. They are the best players in the world and are proving that even when your body is not as young as it was, when one still has the drive and is well prepared, nothing replaces talent and strong will,” said French Open tournament director Guy Forget, a former top-10 player and French Davis Cup and Fed Cup captain. “The young players are still lagging behind.”
And at Wimbledon, where play begins July 2, we’ll find out whether Rafa and Roger can keep figuring out how to successfully “fight against the watch.”