“Playing in the final against Rafa at Roland-Garros is surely the biggest challenge in this sport. It seems absolutely impossible, but I will try, as the thirteen others have tried before me. Like the thirteen others before him, Casper Ruud came, he saw, he lost. Sunday June 5, Rafael Nadal won his 14th title on clay in Paris (6-3, 6-3, 6-0), the 22nd in a Grand Slam, relegating his two great rivals, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, by two lengths .

The challenge was simply dizzying for the young Norwegian (23), who had never ventured to such heights, stalling until then at the Grand Slam round of 16 stage. Even more when you face for the first time on the circuit the one you have idolized since you were 6 years old. “Today I got a sense of what it’s like to face you on this court in the final,” Casper Ruud told the Spaniard, smirking after the match.

“What is happening to me this year is completely insane, it’s very hard to describe the feelings I feel, winning again at 36 on this most important court of my career means so much,” stammered Rafael Nadal when receiving the Musketeers Cup from the hands of American legend Billie Jean King, under the gaze of King Felipe VI.

Arrived on one hop at Porte d’Auteuil

Never mind that this match was not a peak – it has often been so since the left-hander’s first coronation in 2005. Never mind that the winner evolved far from his standards for two sets, on a Central court open air. In a few years, everyone will have chased it from their memory. All that will remain of this duel is its outcome and the thickness of the piece of history. As a bonus, the Spaniard allowed himself Sunday to win one of the last records that resisted him at Porte d’Auteuil: he became the oldest winner of the tournament, overtaking his compatriot Andres Gimeno fifty years ago.

At 36 years and two days old, the Mallorcan will soon have no locks of hair to tuck behind his ears before serving. But in the meantime, on Parisian clay, he continues to defy the laws of gravity. And, even more, those of time.

Never had the master of the place plowed the land so little before joining his kingdom, first diminished by a fractured rib, before the pain in his left foot suddenly woke up in Rome three weeks ago. Had the phoenix resurrected in Australia in January only to be better consumed? When he hopped into Paris, the question was whether he would be able to defend his chances. Throughout the fortnight, his foot (anesthetized he confided) was a subject of debate, but he held on, after a hurdle.

Never had the Spaniard been so jostled in the second week in a table that did not give him a gift. In the round of 16, it took him five sets to defeat Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime, protected by his uncle and ex-coach, Toni Nadal. In a final before the hour, he then took his revenge at the end of the night on the Serbian Novak Djokovic, who had extinguished him in the semi-finals last year.

In the semi-finals, finally, he suffocated less than two sets but more than three hours before Alexander Zverev’s ankle slipped, forcing the German to retire. Who knows what would have happened without this nudge of fate?

After all that, no one imagined him stumbling over the final hurdle. Not with his iron will, he who professed after his title at the US Open in 2019: “I can fail technically or tennistically, but I don’t allow myself to fail mentally. At 36, Rafael Nadal winces, but still stands. Broken everywhere, patched up, but not yet on the ground.

A fortnight between wanderings and flamboyance

In the end, his fortnight will have alternated between wanderings and flamboyance, in a stadium which has unanimously carried him, even if he has not always been the favorite in the past. On Sunday, he received from the 15,000 spectators, standing, the same ovation as since his entry into the running on May 23. A sometimes limited audience, who saw fit to shout “Ruuuuuud”, like the “booooh” coming out of the mouth of a ghost in an attempt to disconcert the young Casper.

In the same way that he had revived in Melbourne after five months of convalescence, in Paris, Rafael Nadal defied all predictions. With all that remains of rage and courage. Clinging to this crazy dream of triumphing a 14th time on “his” land. The last ?

This week, he cast doubt on the rest of his career. “To be frank, every game I play here may be my last at Roland-Garros, or even of my career, who knows? The Spaniard even claimed to gladly exchange a last coronation in his kingdom for the promise of a new foot. “I prefer to lose the final and have a new foot that would allow me to be happy every day. Winning fills you with momentary joy, but I have a life waiting for me afterwards, that’s the most important thing, and I would like to be able to play amateur sports there with my friends…”, he said on Friday .

In his speech at the awards ceremony, he sounded less alarming: “I don’t know what the future holds for me but I will keep fighting,” he promised the audience.

At the twilight of his career, the Philippe-Chatrier court remained his fortress. In 2005, the fiery 19-year-old lay there for the first time, arms outstretched, back against the ground. After seventeen years of reign, the Spaniard can calmly hand over the keys to his kingdom.