Years ago, Rafael Nadal earned the nickname the “King of Clay” for a reason. He seemed unbeatable on the surface. Whether it was at the Masters tournaments in Monte Carlo, Madrid, or Rome–whether it was his home tournament in Barcelona–Nadal almost never lost on the Spaniard. And, of course, Nadal has owned the tournament that history will care about most: the French Open.
Ten years ago, Nadal was already the King of Clay. He had won four French Open titles, along with the other Masters tournaments. Now, a decade later, the Spaniard is still the undisputed King of Clay. Throughout his 14 years competing here, Nadal has only lost two matches. In 2009, he was upset by big-hitting Robin Soderling in the fourth round. In 2015, he was defeated by a seemingly-unstoppable Novak Djokovic. Nadal also did not win the title in 2016, as he withdrew with an injury before his third-round match.
That’s it. There is the history of the King of Clay’s losses at the French Open. Two players have succeeded in defeating him, and his body let him down on a third occasion. Thus, the task ahead of 24-year-old Austrian Dominic Thiem–competing in his first-ever Grand Slam final–seemed impossible. Could he shock the world and defeat Nadal at Roland Garros?
Thiem started the match quite poorly. The Austrian had trouble with the Nadal serve, and he gave up an easy hold. Then he struggled to find the court on his opening service game, and handed the Spaniard an easy break. In fact, after just a few minutes of play, the ten-time champion had won eight of the first nine points. Nadal’s level immediately cooled off a little, though, and Thiem worked his way back into the set as he broke back in the following service game.
The next few games were an absolute treat for fans of clay court tennis. Thiem was hammering every ball that he could, and Nadal was responding with his classic clay court defense. For a time, fans could almost believe that Thiem would present a challenge in this match. Maybe, just maybe, fans could get an entertaining French Open final–something that has been sorely lacking in this era of Nadal’s absolute dominance. In the Spaniard’s ten titles before this match, he had never been taken to a fifth set, and had won four of the finals in straight sets. Could Thiem provide us with a classic final?
Unfortunately, about half an hour later, the answer became a clear and resounding no. While serving down 4-5, Thiem played an absolutely atrocious game. On the first point, he missed a volley–it was not the easiest of volleys, but it was one that a top player should make–and everything snowballed from there. The Austrian followed that point up with three consecutive errors, and the first set went to the Spaniard.
Unfortunately for him, Thiem began the second set the same way he ended the first. A spate of poor play quickly saw him lose the first three games of the set. Over the course of four games–from 4-5 in the first set to 0-3 in the second–Nadal won 20 points. Of those 20, the Spaniard only won one by hitting a winner. The French Open statisticians are nicer than they should be, as all but one of Thiem’s 19 errors in that stretch were unforced (officially, 12 were unforced and seven were forced). Thiem began to play better as the set went on, and it was only one break, but he could never earn it back, and Nadal won the second set 6-3.
Nadal earned another break early in the third set and looked to be home free to his 11th title from there. While 2-1 up, there was an odd stoppage as the Spaniard seemed to be struggling with hand cramps. It clearly impacted his serve moving forward, but not his ground strokes. Whatever the issue was, Thiem could not earn the break back–giving up another one while serving down 4-2–and Nadal took the third set and the title.
What comes next?
Nadal is now up to 17 Grand Slam titles, second all time to Roger Federer. Between the pair, the two all-time greats have now won the last six Slams. At the beginning of 2017, Federer held 17 Slams to Nadal’s 14. Now, six Slams later, Federer still keeps his lead at three. As we head into Wimbledon, Federer and Nadal are the tournament’s two favorites.
It’s impossible to know, looking ahead, just how much longer Nadal can do this. A few years ago, everyone thought he was done. He clearly isn’t. For now, fans just watch and appreciate this unprecedented greatness for as long as they can.
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