At the French Open, Players Look to the Tao of Rafael Nadal

At the French Open, Players Look to the Tao of Rafael Nadal

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PARIS — Playing to his Paris audience, Rafael Nadal usually speaks in French for his on-court interviews at Roland Garros, where his astounding success on the red clay has afforded him abundant practice at polishing his sentences. But on Sunday, after winning his 13th French Open singles championship, Nadal, usually so unrelenting in his routine, dispensed with this particular habit.

With a mask covering his face to protect himself and others from the coronavirus, Nadal had more on his mind than the straight-sets victory over Novak Djokovic that earned him his 20th Grand Slam title, tying him with Roger Federer for the men’s career lead.

Playing to a much greater audience than the corona-condensed crowd of roughly 1,000 people, he chose a more commonly spoken language, English.

“We are facing one of the worst moments ever,” Nadal said. “Keep fighting. We will get through this.”

At that moment, the world saw Nadal as his fellow players do, as someone with more depth than his baseline groundstrokes. As his march to victory played out over two weeks, the weather was cold and gray, the grounds were ghostly quiet and the cafes, boutiques and monuments that normally charm the players were blurred images from their courtesy car windows.

So much of what distinguishes Paris from, say, the Indian Wells tournament in California, was closed to them, stuck as they were in the hotel habitat meant to cocoon them from the coronavirus that France has struggled to contain.

“I’m going to be honest here,” Ons Jabeur of Tunisia, the 35th-ranked woman in the world, said in the tournament’s early days. “I was like, ‘Why are we playing?’”

And then, like an oracle delivering a message from on high, a voice rang out on Philippe Chatrier Court.

“The feeling is more sad than usual,” Nadal said in English after his first-round victory against Egor Gerasimov. “Maybe that’s what it needs to feel like. It needs to be sad. Many people in the world are suffering.”

Every flock needs a cleareyed thinker, and tennis is blessed to have Nadal, whose plain talk throughout this year of the pandemic has been a model of humility, empathy and perspective. When Nadal talks — in his native Spanish, English or French — his fellow players listen.

The Tao of Rafa resonated with Jabeur, who said, “If he’s a champion and he doesn’t complain, I mean, who am I to complain about it right now?”

Set straight by Nadal’s straight talk, Jabeur proceeded to become the first Arab woman at Roland Garros to advance to the round of 16.

Nadal’s 13 French Open titles are a reality-defying accomplishment, or as Federer himself proclaimed on social media within minutes of Nadal’s ace on match point, “one of the greatest achievements in sport.”

Nadal, 34, was touched by the praise from Federer. “I think he’s happy when I’m winning and I’m happy when he’s doing the things well,” he said.

Federer, sidelined this year after undergoing two knee surgeries, is not done competing, so there is a sense that Nadal is chasing a moving target. That partly explains why he is asked far less about his pursuit of the record than is Serena Williams, who is one major title short of catching the women’s leader, Margaret Court, at 24 major singles titles.

But Nadal also maneuvers around the line of questioning as deftly as he does a ball to his backhand so he can hit a forehand winner.

In his virtual postmatch news conference on Sunday, Nadal said: “You can’t be always unhappy because your neighbors have a bigger house than you or a bigger boat or have a better phone. You have to live your personal life, no? Personally that’s the things that I did during all my career. Just try to follow my road, try my best every single day.

“In terms of these records, of course I care. I am a big fan of the history of sport in general. I respect a lot that. For me it means a lot to share this number with Roger, no? But let’s see what’s going on when we finish our careers.”

In an interview in May with the Spanish daily La Voz de Galicia, Nadal was more expansive, as he tends to be in his native tongue. “Even if Federer or Djokovic finishes with more Grand Slams than me, it won’t affect my happiness 10 years from now,” he said.

How’s that for perspective? Makes you wonder: Does Nadal’s waterfront home overlook the Balearic Sea or Walden Pond?

Nadal’s approach to his career, as a personal journey to be shared with those around him rather than an all-out crusade for total domination, belies the all-too-common belief in the modern world that he or she who dies with the most titles, toys or treasure wins.

Nadal’s path this year was supposed to be fraught with obstacles, including the weather, the ball and a long pandemic layoff.

Yet the Tao of Rafa is not just talk, as Nadal demonstrated by not losing a set in seven matches on his way to the title.

Was it easy? Nadal only made it look that way. Did he harbor doubts? Of course.

“For me, doubts are good because it means that you don’t consider yourself too good,” Nadal said on Sunday night.

His apprehension was on high alert in the third set of his semifinal on Friday when Diego Schwartzman forced a tiebreaker. Nadal responded by reeling off seven straight points. His angst was real when he was separated from his wife, his parents and his sister — and had to miss his father’s birthday celebration during the tournament — because they were outside the coronavirus-controlled environment.

“You have to suffer,” Nadal said with a shrug. “You can’t pretend to be in a final of Roland Garros without suffering. That’s what happened there. But I found a way, no?”

Elina Svitolina, who bowed out in the quarterfinals, said Nadal’s wisdom is seeing the big picture and not just the 78-foot-by-27-foot rectangle that is a singles tennis court. Iga Swiatek, who won the women’s final on Saturday, is such an enthusiastic student of Nadal’s that she watched him practice earlier in the tournament and on Sunday returned to Philippe Chatrier to watch him play.

His words also show his journey with English, which he didn’t speak 20 years ago. Though fluent now, he prefers to conduct interviews in Spanish. Like a wily returner, Nadal will occasionally change direction, taking a question lobbed to him in English and returning it in rapid-fire Spanish. He regards his English the same way he does his serve. A work in progress.

On Friday, Nadal said it was frustrating when he joined the tour in 2001 and couldn’t express himself thoroughly to English-speaking reporters. “I was not able to understand and to answer the questions the right way,” Nadal said. “Happy that today the situation is a little bit different. That’s it. Here we are. Keep trying our best.”

Yet the Tao of Rafa is often more poignant in English. Nadal’s self-conscious self-editing strips all the verbiage until all that remains are the kernels of wisdom.

“Of course it is an important day for me, but I’m not stupid, no?” Nadal said on Sunday. “Is still a very sad situation worldwide. If you ask me what’s my feeling, of course I am superhappy. On the other hand, I am not that happy as usual because the situation is tough for most of the people around the world.”

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