The way his nephew Rafael had fought and attacked for four hours and 37 minutes to beat Novak Djokovic in the French Open semi-final had seemed like an impossible dream when they took their first painful, delicate steps on the comeback trail back in February. Toni, who has coached his nephew for the past 23 years, was overwhelmed by the moment.
But Rafael Nadal is back in the final, his eighth at Roland Garros, and today he will face David Ferrer as he attempts to become the only man in history to win eight trophies at the same grand slam.
His record on the Parisian clay is amazing, 58 wins and only one loss. And if he wins today, he will have won more matches in Paris than any other player. Even that one loss does not really count. When Robin Soderling sent him packing in the fourth round back in 2009, Nadal’s knees had seized up and his mind was elsewhere dealing with emotional fallout from his parents’ separation. He did not play again for two and a half months.
This past fortnight, Nadal has slowly found his game and the look of delight on his face after the quarter-final, a straight sets thrashing of Stan Wawrinka, was telling. At last he was moving and playing with freedom, everything had clicked into place, he was ready to win. Djokovic discovered to his cost just what that meant on Friday and now Ferrer must find a way to cope with it.
“It’s true that I’m coming back,” Nadal said. “I reached the final of a grand slam. I mean, that’s something I would have never dreamt of a few months ago, so I’m delighted. If I play my forehand well, being left-handed, I mean, that’s a problem to all the other players. If I manage to be aggressive, to be in the court, it can be a problem. It’s been a problem for many players, so I hope it’s going to be a problem for David, as well.”
The two Spaniards have met 23 times since 2004, with Ferrer winning only four of those matches. The last one was at the Australian Open in 2011 but, on that occasion, Nadal pulled a hamstring in the first couple of games and was playing on one leg through the straight-sets loss. Ferrer has beaten Nadal on clay but that was in their first meeting back in 2004 when Nadal was only 18, ranked 57 in the world and did not have a tournament title to his name. A decade later, he has 56 titles – six of them won this year – and is universally regarded as the greatest clay court player the game has ever seen and one of best players in history on any surface.
They have played three times already this year – Nadal has won them all – and it was the 6-0, 6-2 hiding he gave Ferrer in the Acapulco final just four weeks into his comeback that convinced Nadal he might be able to get back to something like his best. Even Ferrer thinks that today’s final will be proof that Nadal is back to his old, unbeatable self.
“This year in Rome I did a very good game,” Ferrer said optimistically, recalling their quarter-final there. “I played very aggressive all the match, and finally I lost with him because he was better. Of course Rafael is the favourite to win Roland Garros.”
Ferrer has been standing in the shadow of the world’s top four for the past three years. A counter-puncher and a retriever, he is phenomenally fit but at only 5ft 9ins and only 11st 6lbs, he has no huge shot with which to hurt the opposition. No matter, he never gives in and that has earned him the respect of his peers. Alas, in this era, with Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Murray so dominant, it does mean that one appearance in a major final may be the highlight of his career.
“It’s like Andy [Murray] in the US Open,” Nadal explained. “He deserved to be the winner of a grand slam because he was in that position to be the winner a lot of times. So if somebody deserve to win a grand slam [it] was Andy. Somebody deserve to be in the final of a grand slam is David. His level of tennis is higher every year.”
The key phrase there was “deserve to be in the final”, not “to win the final”. Nadal has done more than he ever dreamed was possible this year. From February, when he was unable to practise and advised by doctors to take breaks between events to rest his knee, he has gone on to notch up the best record of the season (played 44, won 42). By tonight, that record may read played 45, won 43. And that really will bring a tear to Uncle Toni’s eye.