So has run one of the key storylines through the weeks leading up to the near-inevitable run of Rafael Nadal to his 11th final at the French Open, in pursuit of his 11th title.
A couple of years back, when Nadal retired in tears before his third-round match in Paris with a wrist injury, went on to play only 16 more matches in 2016—and win just nine of them—and slip to No9 in the rankings, it looked a mountain to climb for the now 30-something to regain his former glory.
But that was to underestimate the fire in the belly of his extraordinary athlete, one of the best ever to wield a tennis racket, and without doubt the most dominant on clay that his sport has seen.
After a final run at the Australian Open, he won his 10th title in Monte-Carlo, Barcelona and, yes, Roland Garros. Oh, and he picked up the Madrid title and reached the Miami final along the way. By the time he also won the US Open, he was world No1, and a fine Asian swing ensured he ended the year at the top, too.
And throughout that near-perfect clay swing, only one man got the better of Nadal on the red stuff: Dominic Thiem. The young Austrian, still only 23 at the time, was also the last man standing with Nadal in Barcelona and Madrid, beat the Spaniard in Rome, and faced Nadal in the French Open semis.
It proved to be no fluke, either. Through April, May and into June this year, Nadal was unbeaten on his beloved terre battue, claiming No11 in Monte-Carlo and Barcelona and No8 in Rome—but once again, Thiem was the only man to beat him, in Madrid: in straight sets, too.
Indeed if Nadal was the king of clay, Thiem had of late been making a case for being the prince of clay. Eight of his 10 titles have come on the grit, plus five of his six additional finals—which included two Masters finals.
This year, Thiem had won more matches, 35, and more on clay, 26, than Nadal. And he came through to this final with a sequence of very impressive scalps: Stefanos Tsitsipas, Kei Nishikori, and No2 seed Alexander Zverev, before cutting giant-killer Marco Cecchinato—victor over Novak Djokovic and David Goffin—down to size.
The quietly-spoken Austrian asserted that:
“I know how to play against [Rafa]. I have a plan. If I want to beat him, I have to play that way like I did in Rome and in Madrid. But I’m also aware that here it’s tougher. He likes the conditions more here than in Madrid, for sure. Best of five is also different story.
“But on the other hand… I’m facing Rafa, I’m not the one who has the pressure.”
No matter all the positives for Thiem, among them his super fitness and Wawrinka-esque power, it was hard to see anything but another victory for Nadal against a man playing in his first Major final.
With ominous intent, Nadal told the media:
“I know I have to play my best if I want to have chances… So Sunday is the day to give my best, is the day to increase even a little bit more the level.”
And that showed in the very first game, a love hold sealed with a net-rush for a volley winner. He proceeded to break Thiem, 2-0, but the spirited Austrian attacked the first ball of the third game, thumped two forehand winners hard to Nadal’s backhand wing, and broke.
These, then, were the tactics, and Thiem stuck to them well in a long and punishing first set played in high humidity.
Despite a couple of double faults in the fourth game, Thiem managed to hold off break point, and held off two more in a gruelling 12-minute sixth game. He made it 3-3 via a 17-stroke rally won with a neat change-up, a drop and volley winning play.
It had taken 40 minutes to play those first six games, and they stayed on serve until the final test of nerves for Thiem. Serving at 4-5, he made three dreadful errors off forehands and volley to offer up a love break and the set, 6-4.
Well over an hour, plus the comfort break taken by Nadal, and they set off again, and the strike came swift and hard from Nadal, a break in the second game as he looped his power forehand hard to Thiem’s one-handed backhand and drew the errors.
Nadal picked up a time-violation warning in the seventh game, and Thiem suddenly worked a break chance, but Nadal had the measure of his opponent, made a drop-shot winner, held for 5-2. After 53 minutes, he had the second set in the bag, 6-3.
Thiem did not want for energy, but his tactics and game-plan seemed to go out the window. He was lured increasingly into Nadal’s punishing baseline-game—a game he would never win against the master of the style. Time and again, Thiem pounded from deep in the court down the centre and into the strike zone of Nadal, rarely attempting to alter the rhythm, try shorter balls, vary the spin on serve. He was not able simply to power through the court, and Nadal was entirely in control of the pace of play.
So the Austrian fought for all he was worth but to little effect. Nadal broke in the fourth game, rode out a cramp or loss of circulation in his finger, and broke again for 5-2, with his 15th net winner. And with 2hrs 42 mins on the clock the defending champion became 11-time and reigning champion, 6-2.
As so many have found before, it is oh-so-easy to have a game plan, and a tactical strategy, backed up by a fine all-round game, and to arrive on the Philippe Chatrier court with all the confidence in the world. It will profit a player little: the most crowned French Open player in history will always be able to dig deeper, hit bigger, run faster, and come out the winner on his favourite court. Nadal has played eleven finals here, and never been beaten.
This one takes Nadal to an incredible 86-2 record at Roland Garros, to his 57th clay-court title, and extends his place in the Major tally record-books to 17, just three behind Roger Federer.
And talking of his oldest rival, Nadal has also done what looked impossible at the start of the clay season. He has defended the huge points he accumulated last year to retain the No1 ranking as the tour heads to grass. Anything short of the title, and Federer would have risen to the top.
Federer opted not to play the clay season to ensure he hit his favourite swing, grass, in prime condition. And a lighter schedule for Nadal before the clay swing—he did not play any hard-court events after the Australian Open to nurse a hip problem—may be a clue to how Nadal also manages his 32-year-old body in the future.
For now, though Thiem, was right to say:
“This is one of the most awesome things that an athlete has ever done in sport: It’s amazing.”
Nadal responded with:
“It was an honour to play you in the final. I am sure you will win here soon.”
But, judging from today’s final, not that soon—not as long as Nadal wishes to return.
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