Saturday 19 October 2019

Rampant Rafa blows Thiem away to seal 12th Paris Slam

King of clay: Rafael Nadal was at his unstoppable best against Dominic Thiem in yesterday’s French Open final, beating the Austrian in four sets to claim his 18th Grand Slam. Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images
King of clay: Rafael Nadal was at his unstoppable best against Dominic Thiem in yesterday’s French Open final, beating the Austrian in four sets to claim his 18th Grand Slam. Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images

Paul Newman

They have rebuilt the main stadium here at Roland Garros but in the new Court Philippe Chatrier the old champion once again reigned supreme.

Rafael Nadal beat Dominic Thiem 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 in the French Open final yesterday to become the first player of either sex to win 12 Grand Slam singles titles at the same tournament.

If Nadal's victories have become as much a part of the landscape here as the beautiful greenhouses in the adjoining botanical gardens, it would be wrong to take them for granted. Some observers complain that Nadal has reduced one of the world's great sporting events to a predictable procession, but once again he triumphed with a stunning display of clay-court tennis. Nobody in the history of the sport has been able to turn stonewall defence into thrilling attack quite like the 33-year-old Spaniard.

Thiem has been the world's second best clay-court player for the last three years and fought blow-for-blow for half the match, but although the 25-year-old Austrian took a set off Nadal for the first time in their four meetings here, he was unable to stop the world No 2 taking his extraordinary record on these courts to 93 victories from his 95 matches.

"It's incredible," Nadal said after the match at the trophy ceremony. "I can't explain my feelings. 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."

The Spaniard congratulated Thiem on his performance and said he felt sorry for his opponent. "He deserves [to win here]," Nadal said. "He has absolute intensity and passion for this sport. I wish him all the best for the future."

Spain's Rafael Nadal bites the Mousquetaires Cup (The Musketeers) as he poses at the end of the men's singles final match against Austria's Dominic Thiem. Photo: Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images
Spain's Rafael Nadal bites the Mousquetaires Cup (The Musketeers) as he poses at the end of the men's singles final match against Austria's Dominic Thiem. Photo: Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

Nadal's 18th Grand Slam title leaves him just two behind Roger Federer's all-time record and extends the remarkable run of players over the age of 30, who have won the last 11 men's Grand Slam singles titles.

At 33 years and six days, Nadal is the third oldest Roland Garros champion in the Open era behind Andres Gimeno (34 years and 306 days in 1972) and Ken Rosewall (33 years and 220 days in 1968).

In the semi-finals Thiem had ended Novak Djokovic's hopes of holding all four Grand Slam singles titles for the second time in his career, but in the end may have paid for his exertions. The world No 4 was back on court less than 24 hours after completing his five-set victory over the Serb and was playing for the fourth day in-a-row.

We have grown accustomed to Nadal's thumping forehands struck with ferocious topspin, his consistently potent backhand, his all-court athleticism and his never-say-die commitment, but just as admirable on this occasion was a less frequently appreciated weapon in his artillery.

The world No 2 volleyed brilliantly, regularly picking up balls off his shoelaces to hit exquisitely judged winners. Thiem, who at least had the satisfaction of winning three more games than he had in losing to Nadal in last year's final, played superbly in patches and won more of the longer rallies, but the king of clay's domination of the shorter exchanges proved crucial.

After the rain and high winds of the previous three days, the conditions had improved significantly. At 18 Celsius it wasn't exactly roasting, but both players would have been grateful that the gusting winds had abated.

The first set was magnificent. For half an hour the contest was evenly matched as the two men immediately settled into a high level of play, trading huge blows from the baseline and matching each other with their athleticism and occasional drop shots.

At 2-2 Thiem drew first blood, converting his first break point with a smash, but no modern player breaks back immediately as frequently as Nadal. Having levelled to 3-3, he broke again two games later, winning one point in sensational fashion. Thiem played a superb drop shot but Nadal, at full pelt, not only reached the ball but hit an exquisite drop shot winner in reply.

Response

When Nadal served out for the first set you wondered if Thiem's resistance might have been broken, but the Austrian's response could not be faulted. Both players held serve comfortably in the second set until Nadal, inexplicably, made four successive errors from 15-0 up when serving at 5-6: a shanked forehand, a backhand beyond the baseline, an inside-out forehand which flew wide and finally another backhand which went long.

This time it was Nadal's turn to bounce back. He won 15 of the first 16 points of the third set to race into a 4-0 lead, hitting one of the shots of the year along the way. With Nadal at the net, Thiem struck a ferocious shot down the line, only for his opponent to fling himself to his right to play a wonderful stop volley. The ball had so much backspin that it bounced back into the net, upon which Thiem gave a rueful thumbs-up.

When Thiem went 0-3 and 0-40 down in the fourth set it seemed that the end might be swift, but the Austrian dug his heels into the clay to force Nadal to work for his win. After three hours, nevertheless, Nadal converted his second match point when Thiem hit a return beyond the baseline, upon which the Spaniard fell to the ground in celebration.

Thiem was given a standing ovation when he received his runner-up trophy. "It's very tough right now because I gave everything I had these last two weeks," he said.

"I love this tournament with all my heart. Rafa, well done. Of course I'm very sad to lose but you're such an amazing champion, such a legend of our sport. It's amazing, 12 times here." (© Independent News Service)

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