Roland Garros, the story goes, was a pioneer in the world of aviation. A self-taught pilot, he emerged as a key figure in World War I even if it claimed his life. Before he passed away, he practiced something that was originally attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte. "Victory belongs to the most persevering". Legend has it that he painted it on the propellers of all the planes he flew in. To pay homage to this WWI fighter, France decided to name a newly constructed tennis stadium ahead of their Davis Cup final in 1928 against the US in his name.
It's only apt, then, that the player who has come to symbolise Stade Roland Garros the most is the one who lives by the mantra that was inscribed on the planes' propellers more than a century ago. Rafael Nadal — who now owns 14 French Open Slams (the same as Pete Sampras' entire collection to just put some perspective into the kind of achievement this is) and 22 Majors in all — further enriched his legacy on a Sunday afternoon thanks to what he did on the dirt over two weeks. He persevered, put his very creaking body — most of it, in actual reality, ought to be out of warranty by now — on the line and willed himself over the finish line.
He didn't struggle on Sunday. Against Casper Ruud, literally a student in the school Nadal founded in Mallorca, there was only ever going to be one winner: the headmaster. It was billed as 'teacher versus the apprentice' but the latter's challenge was quelled before it really began. The one time the Norwegian thought his big weapon — the forehand — was functioning like it ought to, it was 6-3, 1-3. There was a small window the 23-year-old had. He had broken Nadal and had the chance to consolidate. However, what makes Nadal a great player is the one very under-rated trait in his game: the ability to break back immediately.
3-1 became 3-2. The king in his den had been relatively subdued till then. His forehands didn't have the customary zing but he had used the backhand and a very efficient first serve to win a first set low on quality. But, just as the sun started streaking through the vast swathes of Court Philippe Chatrier, Nadal zoomed into life. From trailing 1-3 in the second set till the close of the match, Ruud picked up only 17 points (only four of those off the Nadal serve) while Nadal won 11 games. The domination was so total, so complete, that it may well have been a first round match. Considering better players had been bagelled by the Godfather of Clay in a final (read Roger Federer), Ruud need not get disheartened by the margin of defeat.
What changed from his earlier matches to the one that played out on Sunday? More belief, more aggression, a working forehand and a nervy opponent.
However, this French Open wasn't built on domination. It started with lots of self doubt, several question marks over his fitness and, really, that doggedness that marked him out. He arrived in Paris after revealing that he was managing an apparent foot condition: 'Mueller Weiss Syndrome (do not google it unless you want to be horrified)'. He had scratched his way through matches, had to save a match point and only reached the final after Alexander Zverev injured his ankle during a very tense semifinal. Hours after that semifinal, he startlingly revealed that he would gladly swap a Major title if a genie gave him a new foot. Two days later, he anyway added another title.
WWI made Roland Garros but it killed him anyway. So much success on clay — the most demanding surface — has made Nadal. It could yet kill him but he's not done yet.