The Loop

Rafa Nadal and the curse of being too good

June 10, 2019
2019 French Open - Day Fifteen

Clive Mason

Rafa Nadal has now won 12 French Opens, which is more than any other man or woman has won at a single grand slam event. Or, in fact, any event. (He narrowly defeats Margaret Court, who has 11 Australian Opens, himself at Monaco and Barcelona, clay events where he's also won 11 times.) His matches at the French Open are usually not very good, unless you like dominance. That was briefly not true in the final against Dominic Thiem, and in fact the second set, which Thiem won 7-5, was an electric and quintessential clay court battle, complete with long rallies, impossible angles, and brilliant defense. Then, at the exact moment when you thought we might be settling in for a classic—when Thiem pumped his fist at his box, and clearly believed he had an actual shot—Rafa closed it out 6-1, 6-1.

Not that Nadal actually cares about this, but to some extent he's become a victim of his own success in three crucial ways:

1. Because each successive title is basically fait accompli at this point, we're less amazed than we should be that one person has won 12 friggin' titles at a single grand slam. It's become "normal," even though it's incredibly, historically abnormal.

2. He now has 18 grand slams to Federer's 20, and there are plenty of people who are already preparing to question the legitimacy of Rafa's final total if and when he surpasses the current G.O.A.T., due to the fact that so many came at one event. All that despite the fact that there is only one clay slam each year, compared to two hard court slams each year, and clay is no less legitimate as a surface. Imagine how many more he'd have if two of the slams were on clay (as they once were, briefly, before the U.S. Open switched to hard courts), and how many fewer Federer and Djokovic would have.

3. His name is forever associated with clay, as it should be, but that will overshadow somewhat the fact that he's made 14 grand slam finals on other surfaces, and is just an Australian Open title short of the only double career slam accomplished entirely in the Open Era.
Again, I have to imagine Rafa could not care less about any of this, but it's worth mentioning now that he has one French Open title for every month of the year—"King of Clay" will be his rightful legacy, but "king" doesn't quite do him justice, and there's so much outside the clay that we're doomed to forget.

The Dumbest, Most Hilarious Self-Injury of the Week: Brett Gardner, Yankees

Watch Gardner get angry after what looked like a sure double (at least) was robbed on the warning track by Cleveland's Jason Luplow:

As you see, the helmet won:

In the end, Gardner needed six stitches to close the cut on his lip, making this, officially, the idiotic self-injury of the week.

The "Are the Warriors Better Off Without Durant?" Answer of the Week: NOPE!

Everyone expected the Raptors to win Game Three with Klay Thompson out, and they pretty much dominated. Then most people expected the Warriors to even it up at 2-2 in Game Four with Klay Thompson back, except it turns out the Raptors are just straight up better than them anyway, and so they dominated again. Now, the stakes of the series are pretty clear: If Kevin Durant comes back, the Warriors might have a chance. Repeat: Might. If he doesn't, they're donezo.

The Warriors know this too, because they had him practice with the team on Sunday. Desperate times call for desperate measures, but as much as the Warriors want him back, will Durant want to risk re-injury just before he becomes a free agent and commands an incredibly large payday?

Probably not!

Especially because we've been inundated with "the Warriors might better without Durant!" hot takes ever since he suffered his calf strain. The answer was always "of course not, he's one of the two best players in the NBA," but narratives take root especially hard in the playoffs, and Durant, who is notoriously sensitive, got upset at the social media chatter.

Well, here's your answer: Without Durant, they're basically the same team they were before he arrived, but older. Which is to say that they're very good, but prone to tiring out at the end of a long season, and entirely dependent on their two other stars. Even with Thompson and Curry clicking on all cylinders, it's still not clear they're better than the Raptors, and when one or both are out or struggling, they're absolutely not the best team in basketball, and in fact they tend to force things offensively and get bullied by a more physical team. And it's gotten worse—the year before Durant, they collapsed from a 3-1 advantage in the Finals, but this year they're just not as good as their eastern conference foes.

I will not apologize for this pun: For the Warriors in 2019, it's Durant-or-die.

Sports Pornography for Duke Haters of the Week: Kumar Rocker

First off: No relation to John Rocker. Breathe a sigh of relief.

With that out of the way, watch what Kumar Rocker did to the Duke men's baseball team with the Commodores facing elimination in their super-regional:

That's a no-hitter with 19 strikeouts and 131 pitches. His breaking stuff was so nasty that his catcher couldn't even manage to corral it most of the time. Duke even tried to psych him and interrupt his rhythm with batting conferences, but it just made him madder and better. If you've ever wondered what it would look like if Clayton Kershaw pitched against a team of Little Leaguers—and believe me, I have—this is about as close as you'll get.

The Ridiculous Double Comeback Nobody is Talking About: Ash Barty, Roland-Garros

Barty, the 23-year-old Aussie, won her first grand slam singles title on Saturday in a rout, but the really incredible part of her run at the French Open came a day earlier, when she met Amanda Anisimova in the semifinals. Anisimova, still a teenager, and was completely out of sorts on the big stage, and Barty raced out to a massive 5-0, 40-15 lead in the first set. For the uninitiated, the means she had two set points, and even if she lost those, she'd still have an enormous lead that would almost be impossible to blow.

Except she did blow it—she lost those points, and then lost SIX STRAIGHT GAMES before finally winning to force a tiebreaker at 5-6, which she promptly lost after taking a 4-2 lead. It was stunning to watch, and when it was over, even Anisimova couldn't seem to believe that she'd won the set. It was almost the biggest comeback possible—down five games and 0-40 would be the worst possible one-set deficit, and Anisimova was just a point better. It's impossible to imagine how difficult it would be for anyone to come back from that kind of...well, let's call it what it was: A mega-choke. Barty had every right to wallow in discouragement.

Then—THEN—Anisimova went up 3-0 in the second set! Which was totally expected, of course, because Barty had surely been psychologically beaten into submission and had no prayer.

But THEN, twist of twists, Barty actually came back and won six straight games, and then somehow kept it together enough to actually win the match. If Anisimova's first-set comeback was the most stunning reversal I've seen in a single set, Barty's response, with her back to the wall, represents a kind of mental toughness I find mind-boggling. Most of us, myself included, would have melted into a puddle. The concept of a comeback was so far-fetched that it seemed way more likely that she'd simply quit, or collapse to the court and pull a Richie-Tenenbaum-taking-off-his-shoes act. And it's a shame the French Open organizers bungled their entire tournament and stuck the semifinals in an early time slot where attendance and TV viewership were down, because this was the kind of wild, absurd, thriller of a match that deserved way more attention than it got.

The "For God's Sake, Don't Watch This" MMA Clip of the Week: Valentina Shevchenko

For God's sake, don't watch this:

I told you. I told you. (Note: This is a perfect metaphorical depiction of Rafa Nadal vs. any opponent at the French Open for the last 15 years.)