PARIS, June 9 (Reuters) ― Defying the years and one of the most fierce onslaughts he has ever faced at Roland Garros, Rafael Nadal won his 12th French Open crown on Sunday, leaving Dominic Thiem crushed and a packed Parisian stadium shaking their heads in wonder.
The first set had been one for the ages, the second ran it close, but after three hours and one solitary minute all that mattered was that Nadal was once again in familiar pose, flat on his back in the clay, a 6-3 5-7 6-1 6-1 winner to clinch his 18th Grand Slam triumph in total.
For much of this final, rarely, if ever, has any opponent played so well against Nadal on this Philippe Chatrier center court.
Rarely, if ever, has the best of the young guns Thiem struck the ball so firmly, or played with such purpose and aggression.
But it wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough. Not even before Thiem ultimately ran out of steam.
The 33-year-old Nadal, who becomes the first player to win the same Grand Slam title 12 times, going past Margaret Court’s 11 Australian Opens, now sits just two major titles behind his great foe and men’s Grand Slam title record holder, 37-year-old Roger Federer.
“It’s incredible. I can’t explain the feeling,” Nadal told the crowd.
“For me it was a dream to play here in 2005, and I could not imagine I would be back here in 2019. It’s a very special moment for me.
“I want to say congratulations to Dominic. I feel sorry… he deserves it. He has absolute intensity and passion for this sport. I wish him all the best for the future.”
Physically, Thiem had looked strong and resolute.
But who can say what mental toll his rain-delayed semi-final victory over world number one Novak Djokovic had taken.
The Austrian had had to play on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and now Sunday while Nadal had had Saturday off, having dispatched Federer on Friday before the rain set in.
Certainly it would have taken a monumental effort to remain mentally positive after playing an opening set as he did, and coming out of it empty handed.
Thiem slammed backhands for all they were worth, cleaned the lines with his forehand, and the sonic boom from his serve resonated around Court Philippe Chatrier.
He grabbed the first break of the match to lead the opener 3-2, but four games later it was all over, 6-3 to Nadal. The Spaniard seemingly another inexorable step towards the crown.
It speaks volumes for the world number four Austrian that Thiem came out for the second set in the same fashion – throwing absolutely everything imaginable at his opponent.
Games passed with no break points in sight, and the tension ratcheted ever higher, until the 12th game of the set when it snapped. Nadal rifled a two-fisted backhand just long to hand the leveling set to Thiem.
The French crowd erupted. Thiem clenched his fist. Nadal strode to the sidelines.
But within a flash Nadal had the upper hand again, winning 16 of the next 17 points to lead 4-0 before Thiem could even register any objection. A blink later the set was over, 6-1.
If Thiem had muttered “plus ca change,” he’d have been forgiven. So much effort to claw his way back, so little to show for it now.
Few people on the planet can hit a backhand like Thiem, even once. To do it time after time after time is boggling, but that is what it would take to unseat Nadal.
Still the Spaniard rolled on, soaking up Thiem’s best shots, and the cliche beloved of numerous science fiction movies and TV series seemed appropriate: “Resistance is futile”.
So it proved until Thiem’s final ball drifted long and Nadal was again flat on his back in that red clay, adopting the pose that will adorn back pages and websites worldwide.
By this stage, Thiem, too, could only look on in admiration.
“I love this tournament with all my heart, I love you people with all my heart,” he told the crowd. “Of course I am very sad to lose,” he added, before turning to Nadal. ”You are such a legend in our sport we can be really happy you are playing … I will try next year again for sure.”
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