Rafa Nadal secured an extraordinary 11th French Open title and improved his total overall to 17 career Grand Slam victories, ending what has been a remarkable fortnight for the Spaniard who has displayed amazing resilience to set a record which is unlikely to be broken. And as things stand, no one will be betting he won’t make it 12 next year!
That resilience was on display during the final against Dominic Thiem who was eventually downed 6-4 6-3 6-2 after two-hours 42-minutes for his 86th win on the Roland Garros clay, as he completed the match during the third set with a badly cramping racket hand.
It was a cramping on the [middle] finger but it was not a normal cramping. Probably because I had the bandage here [around his wrist], creates pressure that doesn't allow the right circulation. It was quick in that moment, and it was scary, because I was not in control of my finger. I just went straight to my chair and tried to cut the tape. Rafa Nadal
To everyone’s surprise, Nadal rushed to his chair after missing a first serve at 2-1, 30-love calling for the trainer while ripping off the tape which was wrapped round his wrist in an attempt to relieve the fingers of his racket hand which looked locked, his middle finger pointing at an acute angle.
The trainer arrived immediately and manipulated his forearm to ease the pressure and within three minutes, Nadal returned to complete a double fault.
“It was a cramping on the [middle] finger but it was not a normal cramping,” Nadal explained afterwards. “Probably because I had the bandage here [around his wrist], creates pressure that doesn’t allow the right circulation. It was quick in that moment, and it was scary, because I was not in control of my finger. I just went straight to my chair and tried to cut the tape.”
One would expect that a frightening experience like that would slow down any normal human being, but not Nadal. He slowed down for a few minutes no doubt waiting for the salt tablets to kick in but at no point did he show any less determination than he had done prior to the unfortunate incident.
Thiem, the one man who had beaten the Mallorcan on clay, was unable to exploit the situation as he tried to wear down the defending champion in order to get some hold on the match.
The plan failed as Nadal, who received treatment to his forearm twice during changeovers as the rules allowed, was basically given time to plan his attacks to maximum effect.
He only dropped one game as he continued his march towards that incredible 11th title, securing it on his 5th match point when the Austrian shot a backhand long. He dropped his racket, turned towards his box and lifted his arms in what looked like relief rather than exultation.
And as the Spanish national anthem played, Nadal was unable to contain his emotions, sobbing freely, a reaction his fans are not accustomed to seeing from their idol.
Now that he has closed the gap between himself and Roger Federer in Grand Slam won, to three, he was asked during the post-match press conference whether he was basically jealous of his rival’s total of 20. His response was not only diplomatic, but philosophical as he replied: “You can’t be frustrated always if somebody has more money than you, if somebody has a bigger house than you, if somebody has more grand slams than you. You can’t live with that feeling, no? You have to do it your way.”
Now his attention will turn to the grass court swing of the tour and Wimbledon where Federer has ruled the roost and his best showing recently was a quarter final appearance seven years ago. He is scheduled to warm-up at Queen’s but has warned that he will make a decision as to whether he plays in two weeks time after consultation with his team.
“I have to come back to speak with my team,” said Nadal, who pulled out of Queen’s in 2016 because of a serious wrist injury and last year because of exhaustion. “Of course we will decide what’s better for my body [because] that’s the main thing always.”
Thiem had arrived in Paris in the best of form having won the Lyon title in the preceding week and recorded more wins than any other player on the tour during the season. He had also beaten Nadal in the Madrid quarter-finals having picked up more Tour-level wins than any player in 2018 and snapped Nadal’s 21-match winning streak and his run of 50 straight sets won on clay.
Despite all that and while he was expected to give Nadal a good match, he was continually frustrated by the ‘King of Clay’.
It was a match of break points. Thiem broke the Spaniard’s serve in the third game of the match, nullifying Nadal’s early break but earned only one more break point which was duly saved by Nadal.
The Spaniard applied unrelenting pressure on Thiem’s serve, earning 17 break points and winning five as the Austrian sprayed 42 unforced errors during the final.
After Nadal won the first, there was an air of inevitability for, in 112 best-of-five-set matches, Nadal has never lost after claiming the first set!
Speaking after his defeat, Thiem, who was playing in his first Grand Slam final, said: “To me it’s still been two great weeks.” And turning to the champion, added: “I still remember when you won here the first time in 2005. I was 11 years old, watching it on TV and honestly I never expected that one day I would play the finals here so I am still really happy.
“Thank you to all of you. I love the tournament,” Thiem told the crowd. “I hope I get another chance soon, maybe against you.”
As everyone departed on that memorable day, the bulldozers were arriving to start the rebuilding works at Roland Garros the next morning. The first of the major changes will be seen next year but whether a new champion will emerge is perhaps debatable.