PARIS—As he sat down in the French Open lounge on Saturday, Günter Bresnik, Dominic Thiem’s coach, was asked about Thiem’s upcoming French Open final against Rafael Nadal, the finest clay court tennis player of all time.
“Unfortunately, he could get destroyed,” Bresnik said.
To Thiem’s credit, he played for broke in Sunday’s final, going for winners and big serves. He tried to attack Nadal’s backhand. He hit drop shots. He returned serves from close to the baseline, to give Nadal less time to hit the ball. But in the end, none of it mattered.
Nadal absorbed the blows and then smashed his way to victory in three sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2. His biggest struggle came when he led 2-1 in the third set, while serving. He called in a trainer because his left forearm, already heavily taped, suddenly gave him a cramp. (Nadal holds the racket with his left hand.)
“Because it was quick in that moment, and for me was scary, because I felt that I was not able to move the hand, the finger,” Nadal said. “When I take the bandage out, the things improved.”
This is the 11th time Nadal, 32 years old, has won the French Open, a number of victories here that will likely never be matched by anyone (his record is 11-0 in finals). His first came in 2005, when he was 19 years old (he beat Roger Federer in the semifinals of that year’s tournament). Now, at age 32, Nadal isn’t as fast as he once was, but he’s a more complete player than ever before. His serve, forehand, backhand, volleys and drop shots have no weaknesses. Nadal won 16 of 18 attempts while at the net, as solid a statistic as a player can produce.
But with Nadal leading 5-4, Thiem fell in to a love-40 hole on his serve and couldn’t recover. Nadal led the rest of the match from there, taking an early lead in the second set and doing the same in the third.
On the final point, Thiem hit the ball long and Nadal turned around, dropped his racket and raised his arms to celebrate. He later held up his trophy and began to cry as the audience in the Philippe Chatrier court cheered for him.
“In my career, I achieved much more than what I ever dreamed,” Nadal said. “That minute or two minutes of the crowd supporting, that feeling in that moment was difficult to describe.”
For all his qualities, Nadal’s most important asset is he still plays the sport as if he were a child starting the game for the first time in his life. His concentration during every point is impeccable and his strategy sublime. Nadal and tennis, especially on clay, is like perfect marriages, ones that last until time ends.
Only three men have beaten Nadal on clay three times or more (Novak Djokovic, who won the French Open in 2016, has done it seven times, more than anyone else).
Thiem won his third clay match against Nadal this year, in Madrid. Thiem has long admired Nadal and, when he was a child, hoped to compete like Nadal one day.
“When he won here the first time, actually when he won here the first four or five times, I was always watching it,” Thiem said.
Beating Nadal on clay is a feat, but winning at the five-set French Open is a different story. Nadal is now 86-2 here, a remarkable career that no one ever dreamed would happen. Darren Cahill, who coached Simona Halep to her first Grand Slam title in Saturday’s women’s final, said someone in clay court tennis should never have produced anything like this.
“You mentally have to be tough, physically you have to be strong and you need a little bit of luck,” Cahill said. “It’s incredible to be able to do it once, imagine doing it 10 times.”
“Years ago I thought it would be impossible to win five or six French Opens,” Bresnik said. “Nadal is there for eternity, there is no doubt. No one will break it, never, ever again.”
Nadal said he was amazed this has happened, too.
“If you tell me seven, eight years ago that I will be here 32 years old having this trophy with me again, I will tell you that is something almost impossible,” he said. “But here we are.”
Next up for Nadal: Wimbledon, which he has won twice in his career. But whatever happens there, Nadal said he plans to continue until he can’t play like Nadal anymore.
“I am just trying to keep enjoying,” Nadal said. “When that change, will be a time to do another thing, and I am not worried about this.”
MORE ON RAFAEL NADAL
Rafael “Rafa” Nadal Parera is a Spanish professional tennis player, currently ranked world No. 1 in men’s singles tennis by the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP). Known as “The King of Clay”,[a] he is widely regarded as the greatest clay-court player in history. Nadal’s evolution into an all-court threat has established him as one of the greatest tennis players of all time.
Nadal has won 17 Grand Slam singles titles, a record 32 ATP World Tour Masters 1000 titles, a record 20 ATP World Tour 500 tournaments, and the 2008 Olympic gold medal in singles. In majors, Nadal has won 11 French Open titles, 3US Open titles, 2 Wimbledon titles, and one Australian Open title. He was also a member of the winning Spain Davis Cup team in 2004, 2008, 2009, and 2011. In 2010, he became the seventh male player in history and youngest of five in the Open Era to achieve the Career Grand Slam at age 24. He is the second male player, after Andre Agassi, to complete the singles Career Golden Slam. In 2011, Nadal was named the Laureus World Sportsman of the Year.