Watching Rafael Nadal step out onto the clay-court capital of the world on Sunday and topple Dominic Thiem for an astonishing 12th crown at Roland Garros, we were reminded once more that this singularly resilient individual is the most unassailable competitor in the history of tennis. Consider his personal trajectory since he was victorious at the French Open a year ago: he lost a spellbinding five-set semifinal at Wimbledon to Novak Djokovic; he had to retire at a set and a break down in the US Open semifinals against Juan Martin Del Potro, with an ailing knee; and he did not play an official match again until the Australian Open in January.
Revitalized in many ways and striking the ball beautifully, Nadal went to the final in Melbourne but was obliterated by a masterful Djokovic, who played the match of his life to win 6-3, 6-2, 6-3. Nadal had more knee problems and had to withdraw prior to an eagerly awaited semifinal showdown with Roger Federer in March at Indian Wells. When he returned on the clay, he was not himself for a long stretch, falling in three consecutive semifinals before recovering his winning ways by taking the Italian Open. That was a positive step.
And yet, despite that confidence-boosting week in Rome, there must have been some lingering doubts and insecurities for the introspective left-hander with the large heart, incomparable mind and clear-eyed perspective. He takes nothing for granted, no matter how much he succeeds, regardless of what experts in the tennis community might be feeling about him one way or the other.
The vast majority of the tennis cognoscenti were anticipating another Nadal victory in Paris this year, although others believed Djokovic might be poised to sweep a fourth consecutive major for the second time in his career. Nadal simply took it one match at a time over the fortnight. He was fortunate that the schedule always worked in his favor and enabled him to rest and recover after every match. Nadal confronted Thiem knowing full well that he was primed for another crucial appointment. Thiem, meanwhile, had to be emotionally and physically drained following his two day, five-set, roller coaster ride of a semifinal win over Djokovic. Moreover, he had played three days in a row leading up to his duel with Nadal.
To be sure, Thiem benefitted from having made his final-round debut at a major last year on the same court against the same extraordinary champion. Moreover, the big-hitting Austrian has ousted the Spaniard once on clay in each of the last four seasons, including their most recent encounter in the Barcelona this spring. With his big swings and court positioning, clay suits his game to the hilt. Yet he found himself facing the sport’s maestro on the dirt under the worst possible circumstances.
Be that as it may, Thiem was a total professional. There was no sense early on of any mental or physical fatigue, no sign of negativity, and no indication that he was resigned to defeat. To the contrary, he played a remarkable opening set that gave his boosters every reason to be encouraged. The tension in Court Philippe Chatrier was almost tangible, as Nadal was made to work exceedingly hard in his early service games.
Thiem was not only driving the ball off both sides with his astounding brand of explosive shots, but his defense was testing Nadal. The 11-time champion was exploring the angles off his backhand and opening up the court for his trademark whirlwind topspin forehand, but Thiem was staying in points steadfastly, and throwing up his array of high defensive lobs whenever Nadal came forward. The Spaniard was not dispatching his smashes with anything near his normal rate of success because the Austrian was so adept at hoisting those lobs with not only excellent and exasperating height, but also fine depth.
Thiem drew first blood, securing the first service break of the contest for a 3-2 lead. But Nadal was unswerving. He opened the sixth game with an overhead winner and closed it with a forehand crosscourt, going behind Thiem for a timely winner. Nadal had broken back at 15. But the seventh game featured three deuces, and Thiem had a break point which he squandered with an errant backhand return. Sedulously, Nadal held on with a backhand winner driven up the line.
With Thiem serving at 3-4, 15-30, Nadal dazzled the audience with a wonderful piece of improvisation. Thiem sent a backhand drop shot down the line, but the Spaniard answered with a drop shot of his own that Thiem did not anticipate. At 15-40, Thiem approached behind a forehand swing volley, but directed it unwisely down the middle. Nadal drilled a backhand pass crisply, eliciting a forehand volley error from his adversary. Now serving for the set at 5-3, Nadal connected with four out of five first serves and held at 15.
The second set was played out in another way altogether. Both men were holding comfortably and backing up their serves skillfully. Thiem’s first-serve percentage dropped from 81% in the first set to 69% in the second, but his ground game was tidier, and no longer was Nadal manipulating the rallies and constantly pulling Thiem off the court. Thiem dropped only five points in six service games, winning 80% of his first-serve points and 89% on his second delivery.
Nadal was just as impressive until the end of the set. In his first five service games, he put 18 of 21 first serves in play and won 20 of 21 points. A tie-break seemed entirely possible until Nadal served at 5-6. Thiem kept his returns strikingly deep in that game and controlled the tempo. Nadal tightened up considerably and was pushed back by the heaviness of Thiem’s ground strokes. Thiem broke at 15 to salvage the set 7-5. It was one set all.
Nadal took a bathroom break at that stage, but when he returned he started anew, as if the second set had never happened. Thiem seemed dazed and perhaps mentally fatigued. Nadal swept no fewer than 16 of 17 points to open up a commanding 4-0 lead. Thiem no longer could handle the high backhand the way he had earlier. Nadal picked on that wing cagily, and his hopping topspin forehand provoked many a mishit from Thiem on the backhand side. The point that sealed the set came in the third game. At break point down, Thiem approached down the line off a short return from the Spaniard. Nadal read that play impeccably, lacing a forehand passing shot down the line for a winner. He broke into a triple fist pump after that one, recognizing that the set was essentially over. It would be soon enough.
But the No. 4 seed competed with renewed pride and spirit in the fourth set. He had a break point in the opening game that Nadal erased with a beautifully struck forehand down the line. Nadal held on, broke Thiem at 15 in the second game, but then faced two more break points in the third game. Once more, Nadal met a propitious moment with purpose. He swung a slice serve wide in the ad court to draw a missed backhand return, and then saved the second break point by going down the T with a first serve and coaxing a netted forehand return. Nadal’s intelligence in the heat of battle is second to none in his profession.
He took that three deuce game by approaching on the Thiem forehand and putting away a forehand volley. Nadal led 3-0, then held at 15 for 4-1 and broke Thiem for a final time in the sixth game. Serving for the title, Nadal opened with an ace out wide in the deuce court, charged to 40-15, and missed a forehand on his first match point. But he made good on the second, serving into the body, watching Thiem’s forehand return sail long, then dropping to the court and stretching out to savor the moment as only he could:
Nadal had blitzed through the last two sets, and his 6-3, 5-7, 6-1 6-1 triumph was richly deserved. He got to the net 27 times and won 23 points. That was a stunning accomplishment against someone who passes as well as Thiem. By claiming his 12th title at Roland Garros, the Spaniard establishes himself as the first male or female player to win any of the four majors that many times. Margaret Court won 11 Australian titles, seven in the amateur era and four more after the advent of Open Tennis in 1968. The closest any man has come to Nadal’s total at Roland Garros is Federer with eight at Wimbledon. And now Nadal has won twice as many Roland Garros titles as the former leader Bjorn Borg amassed. Astounding.
Nadal’s feat is all the more staggering because he has never lost a final at Roland Garros, taking the title in the last year of his teens, eight times in his twenties and now three more in a row across his thirties. Elsewhere, Nadal has won six Grand Slam singles titles: three US Opens, two at Wimbledon and one more in Australia. But in those three other majors, his record in finals is 6-8, a far cry from his heroics in Paris. The fact remains that his overall mark of 18-8 is excellent by any measure.
Meanwhile, the historical conversations will take on a new life once again. Nadal has pulled three ahead of Djokovic with his 18 Grand Slam titles, and now stands only two behind the leader Federer. The key to whether or not he can stay ahead of Djokovic and equal or surpass Federer will depend on his capacity to succeed again on some of the other stages. He has not won Wimbledon since he garnered a second title on the lawns in 2010. His one and only triumph at the Australian Open was in 2009. And although he was victorious for the third time at the US Open only two years ago, the hard courts in New York at that time of the year are always worrisome to the Spaniard’s most ardent admirers because he is so susceptible to knee issues.
And yet, when will he ever stop winning at the French Open? In his last three triumphs from 2017 through 2019, he has dropped only two sets. In best-of-five set matches on his favorite surface, Nadal is nearly impossible to beat. He has won 93 of 95 matches at Roland Garros. It is hard to imagine Nadal at 36 or 37 still out there in the forefront of the game; his body might not hold up that long. But he will surely have two more serious cracks at another French Open crown. Almost invariably he stays healthy during the clay court season.
Of this much we can be certain: Nadal will not waste any opportunities to add luster to his record and raise his stature historically. Djokovic surely will have many more opportunities to win all four of the premier events. Federer will be a serious threat at Wimbledon this year. But Nadal will be fascinating to follow over the rest of 2019, on through 2020 and beyond. The feeling grows that this will not be the last time we witness him winning one of the premier prizes in his sport.