Rafa Nadal has never lost a French Open final. A win on Sunday against first-time Grand Slam finalist Casper Ruud would deliver a record-extending 14th crown to the Spaniard and widen his lead in the men’s race for the most major titles.
Nadal, who turned 36 on Friday, overcame physical ailments and a dismal period of preparation to win the Australian Open in January to take his record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title, breaking a three-way tie with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
If he lifts the Musketeers’ Cup again on Sunday, it will be the first time the left-hander has taken the hardcourt major in Melbourne and the Roland Garros title in the same year and would keep him in contention for a calendar Grand Slam.
Nadal enjoys near-mythical status at Roland Garros, where a statue has already been erected in his honour. But standing in his way will be the eighth-seeded Norwegian, 13 years younger and the most consistent player on claycourts in the last three years.
Ruud has led the men’s Tour since the start of the 2020 season in clay-court wins, finals and titles and is the first man from his country to make a Grand Slam singles final.
“I have a huge respect for him. First of all in terms of a friend, he has a great character,” Nadal said of Ruud, who has been training at his academy in Mallorca since 2018. “He’s a great guy, and he has a great family.
“As a player, of course, I respect him a lot. He did a lot of great things the last couple of years,” he said.
“It’s not a surprise.”
Nadal and Ruud have never played a competitive match before, but the duo have hit against each other plenty of times and the Norwegian says he has never won a practice set against his idol.
Ruud, who will rise to a career-high ranking of sixth on Monday, said he has already gone past his pre-season target of making a quarter-final at a major in 2022.
“It is amazing… He is the last player of the Big Three and the very top players in the world I have never played against,” Ruud said.
“So I guess this is perfect timing and worth the wait. To finally play him in a Grand Slam final will be a special moment for me. Hopefully a little bit for him as well.
“He has played so many finals, but at least he is playing a student from his academy this time. So it is going to be a fun one hopefully.”
Similar to his leadup to the Australian Open, Nadal arrived at Roland Garros with persisting fitness doubts after suffering a rib stress fracture and struggling with a chronic foot injury.
He won his first three rounds at the claycourt Grand Slam in straight sets but then had to survive intense four-hour battles to beat Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime in five sets and arch-rival and 2021 champion Djokovic in four.
Nadal, who would pass fellow Spaniard Andres Gimeno as the oldest Roland Garros men’s singles champion if he wins, had to dig deep again in a three-hour slugfest in the semi-final against Alexander Zverev before the German was forced to retire mid-match after injuring his ankle.
Chris Evert, who won seven of her 18 majors at Roland Garros, was unsure of Nadal’s physical condition for the final.
“It’s going to be really interesting,” Eurosport expert Evert said after Nadal’s semi-final win on Friday.
“Rafa today against Zverev, even though he gave such a fight, I felt like he was a step slower than normal because he has had such big matches and drawn-out matches along the way, and I wonder which Rafa is going to show up on Sunday.”