Overall, this article provides the average fan a good representation of Nadal’s genius on clay. But here’s a case of recency bias.
I recently watched a good part of the 2011 final. Nadal’s opponent, Federer, had become the only player in the world to beat Djokovic, breaking the Serb’s 43-match winning streak in the semi-finals, 7–6, 6–3, 3–6, 7–6.
Where Nadal was forced to hit a handful of amazing winners off impossible gets in this year’s French Open, in the 2011 final, Nadal had to come back repeatedly throughout the first three sets until he finally wore done Federer in the fourth. Federer dominated the first set, going up 5–2, forced a tie-breaker in the second, and then came back from the disappointment of being down two sets to love to win the third set 7–5.
In 2011, Federer and Nadal both had 15 break point chances against each other. The difference in the match was that Nadal converted two more in the fourth set, when he finally wore down his #1 rival.
In 2017, Nadal was 6 of 13 converting break points, while Wawrinka was 0 of 1 on his break points.
Also notable was Nadal’s 2013 semi-final, when he won 9–7 in the fifth against Djokovic, en route to the title that year.
The difference between Wawrinka and Nadal’s two greatest rivals is their movement and amazing defense. Far too often in this year’s final, if Nadal hit one forceful shot, Wawrinka couldn’t stay in the rally, either making an error or giving Nadal a short ball that Nadal could hit for a winner.
In the two celebrated matches from 2011 and 2013, the length of the rallies, shot making brilliance, and the intensity with which every game was fought pushed Nadal, his opponents, and the spectators , to our limits.