Where to begin? Rafael Nadal has won the French Open. Again. There is nothing new in that. He has been winning at Roland Garros for most of the past 15 years.
But where to begin? His 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 pounding of Dominic Thiem was his 12th title in Paris and no man or woman in the history of the sport, from the flanneled gentlemen of the 19th century to today’s sleek athletes, has won more titles at a single grand slam tournament. And no man or woman is ever likely to win as many again. It is an achievement of such magnitude that not even Nadal could quite get his head around it.
“This is the best tournament in the world,” Nadal said. “It’s unbelievable for me. I can’t explain the emotion I feel at winning a 12th title here. It’s an incredible thing. I cannot explain my emotions. It’s like a dream.”
In the decade and a half since he won his first trophy in 2005, Nadal has lost only two matches at Roland Garros – one in 2009 to Robin Soderling when his knees were shot to pieces and one to Novak Djokovic in 2015 when his confidence was inexplicably in tatters (in 2016, he was forced to pull out with a wrist injury). But when he is fit and well, no man has ever been able to beat him on the Roland Garros clay.
Twelve titles in 15 years – many players have had entire careers shorter than Nadal’s era of dominance. If he stays healthy until next year, it is hard to imagine anyone taking the trophy from him.
Thiem tried, though. He tried everything he knew but it was just not enough. His consolation prize was that he was only the fourth man after Mariano Puerta, Roger Federer and Djokovic to have taken a set from the Spanish master in the final.
Yesterday’s final could be summed up by that first set. Come to think of it, Nadal’s Roland Garros career could be encapsulated in that first 56 minutes of brilliance.
Thiem is strong, he is fast and he is built for clay. This is his surface and this is where he is at his most dangerous. One of the hardest workers on the tour, his training regime is the stuff of legend so the three hours he spent on court on Saturday finishing off his semi-final with Djokovic did not appear to have slowed him down, nor did the fact he had played four days in a row thanks to last week’s rain.
He came out all guns blazing and went after Nadal. But the defending champion was waiting for him. Whatever Thiem threw at Nadal, Nadal threw back with added force.
The sheer quality of the rallies, the power, the chutzpah and, at times, the delicacy of touch, was breathtaking. It is hard to remember Nadal volleying so often – or so well. When he served and volleyed, it was not the whack-and-charge of the all-out aggressor; this was the place-and-sneak method. Sensing Thiem was camped out eight feet behind the baseline, he placed his serve perfectly to push Thiem into places he did not want to go and then he crept in silently to put away the volley winner off any short return.
But then Thiem broke serve. He was in the lead at 3-2. But as Andre Agassi always used to say: it is not the break that is important; it is the hold game after the break. And Thiem could not hold. He was too passive at the start of that game and Nadal was too aggressive at the end of it. Thiem tried to apply the pressure again in the next game – he had a break point – but when he was not allowed to convert it (Nadal thumped down a big serve), he started to run out of steam.
Nadal was relentless. His forehand was bludgeoning and brutal, his focus clear and precise. No one was going to take the opening set from him and, sure enough, after 56 minutes of genius from both men, Nadal was a set to the good. Now on to the title.
What came after was not up to the standard of the first set but not many sets in any grand slam final played in living memory could hold a candle to those opening nine games.
From facing that break point in the seventh game of the match, Nadal dropped only two points on serve in the next six service games. Thiem was not giving anything away on his own serve, but he could not come close to putting pressure on the greatest clay court player of all time. And then Nadal served to stay in the second set, threw in a handful and the set was Thiem’s.
But winning that set was the end of Thiem. Rule No 1 for any hopeful in a Roland Garros final: don’t make Nadal angry. At the start of the third set, he set about Thiem like a man possessed. In 14 minutes, the Austrian had won one point and was 4-0 down. After 24 minutes, the set was done and Nadal was accelerating towards a place in the history books that will probably never be rewritten.