Rafael Nadal was into his 12th Roland Garros final, and had never been beaten in 11 previous semi-finals and finals here. Indeed since winning at his first visit as a teenager in 2005, had lost only two matches in the 94 played.
He turned 33 just a few days ago, yet his work ethic, his determination, and the sheer brute quality of his clay-court tennis looked undiminished. Against Roger Federer in his semi-final, in particular, he had handled high winds, blasting clay dust, and his illustrious opponent with as much fire as he ever had.
In fact there are many who would suggest Nadal is currently playing perhaps his best ever French Open tennis: His serve is bigger, his backhand stronger, his willingness to finish at the net undoubted, his tactical flexibility ever-more finely tuned with the help of friend, former champion and coach, Carlos Moya.
Federer summed it up:
“He makes you feel uncomfortable the way he defends the court and plays on clay. There is nobody who even plays remotely close to him.”
It has, then, become the most formidable challenge in tennis, attempting to dethrone the king of clay in the court he has made his own.
And that challenge, for the second year in a row, fell to world No4 Dominic Thiem.
The young Austrian, and he is still only 25 years old despite owning 13 titles from 20 finals, was long ago seen as a future French champion, and with good reason. Three clay titles at the age of 21, a total of nine clay titles and six more finals, including two runners-up finishes at the Madrid Masters, plus the Barcelona title this year—beating Nadal.
Thiem, though, has been no more a one-trick pony than Nadal. The Austrian has won on the grass of Stuttgart, and he beat Federer to win his first Masters in Indian Wells.
This year alone, he had now claimed the scalps of the three greatest players of the era, Nadal, Federer and, in the semi-finals here, Novak Djokovic.
He was under no illusions about the scale of the task for every other player on the tour:
“It’s incredibly difficult to win a Grand Slam. Especially for us players who didn’t have one yet, because if everything goes quite normal, we have to beat two players with 15 or more Grand Slams. So I think everybody can imagine how difficult this is.”
Now he was on to the second one in the space of just one day. He had only spent two more hours than Nadal on court to reach the final, but the weather and subsequent impact on the schedule meant that Nadal did not have to play back-to-back days, while Thiem would end up playing four days in a row—chiefly because his semi against Djokovic was abandoned to storms on Friday afternoon.
And yet… if anyone could, perhaps the super-fit, light-weight Thiem could. He owns a pile-driver one-handed backhand, great sprinting speed, and enough variety to give himself chances to take on the attack but also defend from the extremes.
His results at Roland Garros were also impressive: Two semi-finals, and now two final runs in the space of four years. The final string to his bow was that he had beaten Nadal four times on clay, a rare achievement, and notably so in Barcelona.
Even so, few could have anticipated the drama-packed, jaw-dropping nature of the opening set, one of the finest first sets anyone could have wished for in a Major final.
The rallies were long, like two Nadal’s playing one another, both men using the full dimensions of the court, extreme angles, pounding top spin, chasing defence. There were drops shots and retrievals, forehand winners and backhands winners.
The first three games lasted 17 minutes, and in the fifth game, Thiem played two superb rallies to break Nadal, and Philippe Chatrier exploded. The lead, though, was short-lived. The first point of the next game took 20 shots to determine, in Nadal’s favour, and the Spaniard would win three more to break back.
Thiem’s explosive tennis and tenacity almost got their reward again in the seventh game, an 11-minute thriller, two break points, punctuated by a superb drop/lob winner from Thiem in the middle.
But such challenges bring out the most competitive Nadal, who held, 4-3.
Such was the battle, such the all-court demands and length of points that each had already run 1,300 metres apiece, almost three times the distance played after seven games in the Thiem/Djokovic semi-final. But Nadal grabbed the advantage at the key moment, helped by a stunning drop shot return, to break, and he served out the set, 6-3, after 53 minutes of intense, brilliant tennis.
Thiem had missed only four first serves in the set, yet had come off the worse, but Nadal’s serving looked impenetrable in the second set. Each made a clutch of love holds, though Thiem continued to stand his ground, this time serving first. And all at once, Nadal’s serve wavered. Having dropped just one point in five service games, he suddenly faced two break points, and Thiem made no mistake: 7-5, and all square.
Time for Nadal to walk away, leave the court, gather his thoughts, take a shower, and let Thiem ponder. And it worked immediately—a love break, a love hold and three more points, 11 in a row.
Nadal broke again, playing with even greater intent and energy, and mixing things up with some net plays. A remarkable volley ‘get’ spun back into the net on Thiem’s side—a metaphor for what Nadal’s tennis was doing to his opponent. An ace finished the job, 4-0, before Thiem regrouped briefly for a love hold, too. But Nadal was turning the screw, and broke again, 6-1, with 23 of the last 30 points.
Did the bold Thiem have anything left to give after the demands of the last three days, of five sets and four and a quarter hours against Djokovic, from beating No10 seed Karen Khachanov and No14 seed Gael Monfils, and in the third round, one of the most dangerous unseeded men in the draw, clay expert Pablo Cuevas?
Thiem began to look drained both physically and mentally, while Nadal seemed to accelerate, throw in net charges, pile on the serving power. Thiem had chances, earned by spirited spurts of effort in the first game and the third—three break points went begging—but Nadal serve and volleyed, 3-0, and although Thiem fought back from 0-40 to hold and get on the board, that would be his last hurrah.
At spot on three hours, Nadal served it out, and fell to the court that he has made his own, 6-1.
And so to our beginning: where to start when it comes to Nadal? He arrived in Paris in perhaps less convincing form than he had in many a year. After reaching the final at the Australian Open, he did not even reach the final of a clay tournament until the last before Roland Garros, when he won the Rome Masters.
But timing is everything, and having sharpened his clay tennis there, he warmed up nicely against two qualifiers at Roland Garros, dropped his only set before the final to David Goffin, and was finally probed by Federer and the wind. He answered each harder question with greater quality, and once Thiem had given his best, he simply peaked to finish in style: the perfect dozen.
His 12th Coupe des Mousquetaires takes him to 18 Major titles, within two of Federer, and should he win again next year, it would complete a full century of match-wins. The numbers are gasp-inducing, though he remains just the third oldest champion at Roland Garros. If he wins in 2020, he will claim that record too.
As for Thiem, he was beaten by the greatest champion, but there is no doubt that the Parisian weather and the schedule played their part. For two sets, this young star was the equal of Nadal—and his turn may yet come.
“He played outstanding today, because especially in the first two sets I played very good tennis. What he was performing I think is unbelievable.
“There has to be a reason why he’s that successful. I mean, he won 18 Grand Slams, which is only two less than Roger. So definitely he’s one of the greatest of all time. Today, I saw why.”
For now, all he could do was bite back tears as he thanked his box and the crowds for their support, and promise to be back next year to try again.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge