One of the greatest achievements in sport: Nadal wins 11th French Open

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Rafael Nadal gave Dominic Thiem a masterclass in clay-court tennis at Roland Garros, where he's now won the title an incredible 11 times. (Photos by Anita Aguilar)

PARIS—Watching the presentation ceremony after Rafael Nadal had cut down Dominic Thiem, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2, to claim his eleventh French Open crown and 17th Grand Slam title, it was fitting that the man presenting the trophy to the champion was none other than Ken Rosewall. The 83-year-old Australian is cut from the same cloth as the 32-year-old Spaniard in terms of character.

Rosewall captured the first Grand Slam tournament of the Open era in Paris fifty years ago, and now he was greeting a fellow he clearly admires not only as a tennis champion but as a man who represents the sport just about as well at it can be done. Rosewall was an understated individual who let his triumphs speak for him, and so it is with the humble left-hander.

Nadal takes none of his victories for granted, thoroughly appreciates every opportunity he gets to succeed on one of the premier athletic stages, and wins with almost unimaginable class and grace. Nadal has long understood that the ultimate test of a champion is to step out into the arena and play not only hard but fair, to compete with equanimity, win or lose, and to respect each and every opponent for who they are and what they have done. He never puts himself on a pedestal and always treats his opponents with respect.

In this final with Thiem, Nadal could not have started with greater intensity or deeper concentration. He surely wanted to avoid struggling as he had in almost every first set he contested all tournament long. He realized that Thiem, who has beaten him on clay three times, was as worthy a rival as he could have confronted in the title round this year. He took the assignment with a seriousness he reserves for only the biggest moments on the most prestigious occasions.

Nadal came out of the blocks with unbridled passion and unswerving play. He held at love in the opening game with an excellent forehand approach leading to a forehand volley winner, and then broke for 2-0 at 15, testing Thiem’s one-handed backhand with persistence, rolling high balls to that side to draw errors from the Austrian. Nadal cemented that break with a deep return followed by two more shots that kept Thiem at bay. The No. 7 seed netted a forehand—and Nadal was off and running after winning eight of the first nine points in the match.

But Thiem, in essence, would then say, “Not so fast.” After coaxing Nadal into a couple of forehand mistakes for 0-30, Thiem eventually broke at 30 in the third game as Nadal’s short backhand mishit gave the Austrian just the opening he needed to unload a thundering forehand for a winner. Thiem had been a semifinalist at Roland Garros the previous two years, losing to Novak Djokovic in 2016 and to Nadal last year. Now he had his heart set on success in his first final.

Despite two double faults in the fourth game and one break point against him—saved with a massive, 222-K.P.H. first serve—Thiem made it to 2-2 after three deuces.

Nadal’s early advantage had been taken away from him by an opponent who recognized that without winning the first set, he would almost certainly not be victorious in the match. But the wily Spaniard was not unnerved by where he stood. At 15-15 in the fifth game, Nadal went to the drop shot to draw Thiem in, and then fielded the Austrian’s response with a glorious backhand half-volley topspin lob that landed on the baseline. He held at 30 for 3-2, and then created another opening for a break.

Thiem fought through four deuces and saved two break points on his way to 3-3. Nadal missed a running forehand crosscourt and a forehand down the line on the break points, but Thiem’s competitiveness carried him through that game. Nonetheless, Nadal pressed on tenaciously, holding at 15 for 4-3, missing only one first serve in that important game. Thiem answered with a hold of his own at 15, reaching 4-4 with a winning forehand driven down the line with interest.

When Nadal hit a double fault at 15-0 in the ninth game that seemed to bounce into the bottom of the net, his biggest supporters had some cause for consternation. But this unshakable competitor marched on as if nothing unusual had happened. His first serve to the backhand provoked an errant return. He released a forehand crosscourt winner off a hanging backhand slice from Thiem. And then, at 40-15, Nadal served potently to the forehand and caught Thiem off guard.

It was 5-4 for the Spaniard, and Thiem was overwhelmed by the situation. He opened the tenth game by netting a backhand approach volley off a backhand slice from Nadal: 0-15. The Spaniard followed with a high trajectory topspin backhand deep crosscourt that boxed Thiem in. Thiem missed a forehand down the line: 0-30. Knowing he was two points away from losing the set, Thiem pressed. He netted an inside-in forehand: 0-40. Now, down triple set point, Thiem drove a forehand well over the baseline off a looped backhand return down the middle from Nadal.

Nadal had the break at love to seal the first set in 57 busy minutes. Predictably, he built on his lead swiftly and started to pull out of reach. Nadal held at 30 for 1-0 in the second set. Thiem erased three break points against him in the second game and then served an ace for game point, only to double fault on the following point. Thiem saved one more break point, but an ironclad Nadal rolled a forehand return crosscourt that—again—got up high on Thiem's one-handed backhand. The 24-year-old could not handle that shot, try as he did throughout the day. Nadal had advanced to 2-0, and he conceded only one point as he collected a fifth game in a row for 3-0.

The top seed was rolling, and Thiem was increasingly frustrated by his inability to make piercing moves that would cause Nadal to start missing or lose rhythm. This is not to say that the Austrian drifted into despondency. He held at love for 1-3 and had Nadal in a 0-30 deficit in the fifth game. But the left-hander, having lost six points in a row, recovered his equilibrium. Consecutive stinging backhand crosscourt shots opened an avenue for Nadal to lace a winner down the line with his two-hander. He was stretched to deuce in that crucial game, but held on for 4-1.

Thiem answered with a love hold in the sixth game before Nadal was warned for a time violation as he served at 4-2, 30-30. Thiem made a sparkling drop shot winner off the backhand to garner a break point, but Nadal countered with a forehand passing shot winner for deuce. He held for 5-2 by virtue of a penetrating crosscourt backhand, a shot that came through for him time and again, all match long.

The Austrian held on in the eighth game, but now the Spaniard served for a two sets to love lead. He commenced that game with a gorgeous inside-in forehand winner on the sideline, and closed it with an intelligent looping backhand down the line that compromised the Austrian once more. Nadal had held at 15 to seal the set, 6-3. Never in his 24 major final round appearances has the Spaniard squandered a two-set lead, and he was not about to start now.

Yet Thiem’s pride kept him in the hunt. He saved four break points in the opening game of the third set, holding gamely from 0-40. Nadal marched to 1-1 at the cost of only one point, and then broke his adversary in the third game with a scorching forehand down the line inducing an error from the besieged Austrian. Nadal opened up a 30-0 lead in the fourth game, but then called for the trainer after missing his first serve.

The bandaging around Nadal's arm and wrist was so tight that it caused cramping in his fingers in a way he had never experienced before. Nadal came back on court after the delay and double faulted. But he followed with a nifty forehand volley winner and held on at 15 with solid baseline play. 3-1.

Thiem held serve comfortably, but then Nadal moved to 4-2 with a love game, closing it out with an excellent forehand approach that paved the way for a backhand volley winner into the open court. Nadal had now come to terms with his discomfort, and he proceeded to break again for 5-2, at the cost of only one point.

The perennial Roland Garros crowd favorite was exultant, knowing he had the insurance break, looking forward to serving out the match. He raced to 40-0 but missed a down-the-line backhand. Thiem then sent a forehand into the clear off a Nadal drop shot for a stunning winner, and Nadal then mishit a backhand as Thiem’s deep, down-the-line backhand was too hot to handle. Nadal promptly earned a fourth match point, but the unbending Thiem saved that one with an aggressive forehand that was unmanageable for Nadal.

But Thiem had no more late match heroics left. He missed flagrantly on a forehand down the line, handing Nadal a fifth match point:

This one, Nadal converted, as the Austrian’s down-the-line backhand return travelled long. In two hours and 42 minutes, Nadal had ruled the day, claiming his 17th career Grand Slam singles title to move within three of the men’s record holder, Roger Federer.

Remarkably, the two icons from Switzerland and Spain have collected the last six major titles between them. What makes it all the more noteworthy is that Federer went all the way from Wimbledon in 2012 until the Australian Open of 2017 without a major, while Nadal endured a fallow three-year period from Roland Garros in 2014 until last year's French Open without getting back on the board at a Grand Slam tournament.

Not only is Nadal the French Open champion for the 11th time, he has never lost a final on the Paris clay. In those finals, he has never been taken to five sets. This was his fifth time he has won in straight sets; six times he has completed his task in four sets. They call that domination.

After his triumph over Thiem, Nadal said, “It is true that in my career I achieved much more than what I have ever dreamed. But, at the same time, on the other hand, it’s true that I went through tough moments, a lot of times with injuries. So, for example, the beginning of this season in Australia I have been in a good position to fight for an important title for me. I had to go. And then in Acapulco, again injured. And I couldn’t play Indian Wells and Miami. And I arrived so-so with some doubts for this clay-court season.

"I came back from almost five months without playing a full tournament since Shanghai last year. So it was a lot of months with problems. Coming back and having the chance to win Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and now, especially here in Paris, it’s very emotional for me.”

Now Nadal will shift his attention to the grass-court campaign, and the start of Wimbledon in three weeks. Between 2006 and 2011, in his five appearances, he won two titles and reached three more finals. But in his last five outings he has not been beyond the fourth round at the All England Club. The view here is that this year his luck might be different. Perhaps very different.

Meanwhile, Nadal can celebrate another golden fortnight on the red clay of Roland Garros. His achievement of winning the world’s premier clay-court tournament so many times must be regarded among the most towering feats in the history of all sports. Maybe, just maybe, it is the greatest accomplishment of all.


More on the match, from Hall of Famer Tracy Austin at Roland Garros:

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