There is no more difficult challenge in sport than to defeat Rafael Nadal on Court Philippe Chatrier, the main show court of the French Open. It is, for all relevant purposes, his home, his house, the place where he wins and wins and wins again, the way that John Wooden’s U.C.L.A. basketball teams of the nineteen-sixties and seventies won game after game in Pauley Pavilion, which is the only analogy can be summoned from six decades of watching sports. But Pauley Pavilion was U.C.L.A.’s home court.
Nadal made Chatrier his. From his first appearance there, as a teen-ager, he was attracted to its spacious expanses of clay behind the baselines—which allowed him to position himself deep, to buy time on service returns and through long rallies—and attracted also to the quality of the red crushed brick, the terre battue, which sent his topspin forehands bouncing above his opponents’ shoulders, yielding, often enough, short, lifeless replies.
He won that first French Open he played, and it must have stirred him. Watching him from courtside as he warmed up before matches on Chatrier last week, to hear the announcer, as he introduced the competitors, pronounce each of the eleven years Nadal had earned the championship trophy, his voice growing theatrically louder with each year, the crowd gradually joining in, chanting along or simply standing and cheering, as we neared the end of the miraculous roll of années: deux mille dix-sept! DEUX MILLE DIX-HUIT!