How many sporting situations are more difficult than facing Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros? On his beloved clay surface Nadal is both the unstoppable force and the immovable object of the classic paradox.
And so Dominic Thiem found yesterday in Paris, going down 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 in just over three hours as the Spaniard secured a record 12thFrench Open title.
The statistics are staggering, numerous and worth listing.
The victory secured Nadal’s 18th grand slam title, meaning he is now just two behind Roger Federer’s all-time record of 20. He became the first player to win a single grand slam title 12 times, surpassing Margaret Court’s 11 at the Australian Open. His dominance is such that if only his French Open wins counted he’d still be fifth in the all-time men’s singles titles list.
The 33-year-old now has a record at Roland Garros which reads: played 95, won 93, lost two and a clay court record when he’s taken the first set in best-of-five matches which reads: played 101, won 101.
“It is truly incredible. I cannot explain it,” Nadal said in his best French after wrapping it up. “To play for the first time in 2005 – I never thought in 2019 I’d still be here. It’s an incredible moment and very special for me.”
Explaining his unrivalled genius on clay is no easy feat, as its basis tends to reside in his relentless consistency as much as his sparkling stroke-making.
Thiem came at him full tilt, testing the Spaniard with all he could muster. But after an intense, gripping and high-quality first set went to the defending champion and the second to the plucky challenger, Nadal’s calling cards started to appear more frequently.
Nadal started the third set revved up by his grim determination, pulling out a ludicrous backhand slice volley winner, all the while unfurling that trademark nasty top-spin forehand with laser-guided accuracy onto the baseline over and over again.
As his opponent faltered he tightened the clamp on Court Philippe Chatrier, edging ahead in all the key metrics to make history, drop to the floor with arms outstretched and get his teeth around that grand silver trophy for the 12th time.
It was a victory which solidified the dominance of the older, wiser and more experienced players in men’s tennis: Thiem is, remarkably, now the only man under the age of 30 to have won a set in a grand slam singles final.
For Thiem it was a second successive defeat in the French Open final by Nadal, having lost in straight sets in 2018. The Austrian was playing for the fourth successive day due to a schedule cramped by rain delays, racking up nearly 18 and a half hours of game-time in the tournament altogether.
Despite the demands the 25-year-old stood up physically to the gold standard of fitness represented by his opponent, but was ultimately, like many before him, worn down by Nadal’s abrasive brilliance on the other side of the net.
He will be back, but for now the King of Clay remains on his throne.