The Washington Post

Nadal re­mains undis­puted king of clay

Spaniard de­feats Thiem in four sets to win 12th French Open ti­tle

- BY LIZ CLARKE Sports · Rafael Nadal · Iceland · Austria · Dominic Thiem · Roger Federer · Belgium · Novak Djokovic · Belarus · FC Barcelona · Barcelona · Philippe Chatrier · Spain · Spain national football team

When Rafael Nadal speaks about what he does on a tennis court, the word he chooses is “fight.”

It is the only way the Spa­niard knows how to prac­tice, bat­tling for ev­ery ball for two or three hours at a time — the more op­pres­sive the heat, the bet­ter. And it is the only way he knows how to com­pete.

It’s as if with­out strug­gle, in Nadal’s view, there is no point to tennis, no au­then­tic way of know­ing he is alive.

In Sun­day’s French Open fi­nal, Aus­tria’s Do­minic Thiem threw ev­ery shot he had at the Spa­niard. All it did was in­cite the beast that is Nadal, who proved, with a 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 tri­umph, that he re­mains peer­less on the red clay of Roland Gar­ros, where his match record is 93-2.

For the 12th time in the past 15 years, Nadal, 33, hoisted the French Open’s Coupe des Mous­que­taires.

No other player has won 12 sin­gles cham­pi­onships in any sin­gle Grand Slam event. With his lat­est, Nadal now has 18 ma­jor sin­gles ti­tles, putting him within two of ty­ing Roger Fed­erer’s men’s record of 20.

Asked about that tan­ta­liz­ing prox­im­ity, Nadal said it wasn’t

re­motely on his mind on this spe­cial day — or, in fact, ever.

Con­ced­ing that he and Fed­erer have pushed each other through­out their ca­reers, Nadal said: “I never try to think about whether I’m go­ing to catch Roger or not. Hon­estly, I am not wor­ried about this stuff. You can­not be frus­trated all the time be­cause the neigh­bor has a big­ger house than you or a big­ger TV. That’s not the way that I see the life.”

Nadal fell flat on his back upon de­feat­ing the 25-year-old Thiem, who played re­mark­ably well less than 24 hours after van­quish­ing world No. 1 No­vak Djokovic in a weather-in­ter­rupted semi­fi­nal that spanned two days.

Thiem un­loaded blis­ter­ing ground­strokes, struck im­pos­si­ble an­gles with his one-handed back­hand and, in the early go­ing, kept the pres­sure on Nadal’s re­li­able serve. If Thiem erred at all, it might have been in ac­cord­ing Nadal a bit too much re­spect by stand­ing so far be­hind the base­line, giv­ing the cham­pion a split­sec­ond’s ex­tra time to plot strat­egy and re­act.

Thiem also com­pli­cated his chal­lenge, in an odd way, by win­ning the sec­ond set. No­body had won a set against Nadal in a French Open fi­nal since 2014, when Djokovic claimed the open­ing set be­fore suc­cumb­ing in four.

After a bath­room break to fo­cus his thoughts, Nadal pro­ceeded to win 16 of the next 17 points and claim the third set in 24 min­utes. But what else could Thiem do? All Thiem wanted after tak­ing a straight-sets thrash­ing from Nadal in last year’s French Open fi­nal was a chance to try again. To show — ide­ally against Nadal, the great­est clay-court player in his­tory — that he had im­proved and had the mak­ings of a wor­thy ri­val.

Even in de­feat, Thiem achieved that Sun­day.

The first set was chock-full of long, phys­i­cal ral­lies, with Thiem prov­ing ev­ery bit the hu­man back­board that Nadal is on clay. He an­swered Nadal’s fore­hand blasts in kind, show­ing no signs of fa­tigue from his five-set or­deal against Djokovic, and man­aged some wicked an­gles that yanked the Spa­niard from one side­line to the other.

Nadal claimed the open­ing set in 53 min­utes and, by that point, was well into his rit­ual of swap­ping sweaty shirts for fresh.

One set in ar­rears, Thiem’s chief as­set was the knowl­edge that he had beaten Nadal four times on clay, in­clud­ing their most re­cent meet­ing, in Barcelona six weeks ear­lier. It’s the rare player, re­gard­less of rank­ing, who truly be­lieves he can beat Nadal on clay. The fourth-ranked Thiem had that be­lief. And it sus­tained him through a tight sec­ond set that he eked out with a ser­vice break as Nadal, at 5-6, failed to force a tiebreaker.

On the sur­face, it seemed the match was just be­gin­ning. The score was knot­ted at one set apiece. In fact, it was the turn­ing point.

In­stead of the mo­men­tum shift­ing in Thiem’s fa­vor, it ig­nited Nadal. Thiem won only two games from there.

Ex­plained Thiem, still pro­cess­ing his swift and ir­rev­o­ca­ble re­ver­sal of for­tune an hour after the match ended: “[Nadal] is one of the great­est of all time. To­day I saw why. I played very good the first two sets, and I had a lit­tle drop, which against most of the play­ers is not too bad. But [Nadal] took the chance, and he stepped right on me.”

As if with the flip of a switch, there seemed to be no ball Nadal couldn’t re­trieve.

Al­though Nadal’s for­ays to the net are rare, he rarely errs once there. On Sun­day against Thiem, he was ruth­less, win­ning 23 of his 27 points at the net.

“The last time he missed a vol­ley was, like, seven years ago,” Thiem said with a smile.

Com­bined with his out­stand­ing court cov­er­age (a com­bi­na­tion of raw speed and ex­pert slid­ing abil­ity), Nadal’s pro­fi­ciency at the net made Thiem think twice about drop shots, deny­ing him one more tac­tic that would have won a few points against lesser op­po­nents.

After watch­ing in dis­be­lief as Nadal raced from well be­hind the left cor­ner of the base­line to turn a back-spin­ning drop shot into a win­ner, Thiem could only of­fer a thumbs-up and shake his head.

When the three-hour match fi­nally ended and Nadal picked him­self up from his back-flop on the court, his sweat-soaked shirt caked with the red clay he loves so much, the two shared an em­brace at the net.

In the tro­phy cer­e­mony that fol­lowed, in which Nadal again raised the Coupe de Mous­que­taires for the 15,000 in the stands of Philippe Cha­trier, the Spa­niard re­served his first words for Thiem, whom he praised for his in­ten­sity and pas­sion.

“Keep go­ing,” Nadal said. “You will win this, for sure.”

Then, al­ter­nat­ing among English, French and Span­ish, Nadal thanked every­one from the tour­na­ment’s ball kids to Spain’s for­mer king, 81-year-old Juan Car­los I, who looked on with pride. Thiem was equally gra­cious. “You are such an amaz­ing cham­pion, such a leg­end for our sport,” Thiem said. “It’s amaz­ing — 12 times here. It’s un­real. I will try again next year.”

 ?? VIN­CENT KESSLER/REUTERS ?? Rafael Nadal earned his 18th ma­jor ti­tle and is two be­hind Roger Fed­erer’s men’s record.
VIN­CENT KESSLER/REUTERS Rafael Nadal earned his 18th ma­jor ti­tle and is two be­hind Roger Fed­erer’s men’s record.
 ?? CLIVE MA­SON/GETTY IMAGES ?? Nadal, still king of the red clay Rafael Nadal is un­de­feated in 12 fi­nals at Roland Gar­ros. No­body has been able to ex­tend the Spa­niard to a fifth set.
CLIVE MA­SON/GETTY IMAGES Nadal, still king of the red clay Rafael Nadal is un­de­feated in 12 fi­nals at Roland Gar­ros. No­body has been able to ex­tend the Spa­niard to a fifth set.
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA