Rafael Nadal wins 11th French Open title, ties record

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PARIS (AP) — In full control of the French Open final, a rather familiar position for him, Rafael Nadal suddenly was worried.

He led by two sets plus a break early in the third, when the middle finger on his racket-wielding left hand was cramping so badly he couldn’t straighten it. After serving a fault, Nadal took the unusual step of heading to the sideline in the middle of a game.

“Tough moment,” Nadal would say later. “I was very scared.”

Up in the stands, Nadal’s uncle Toni, his former coach, was nervous, too, “because I thought maybe we can have a problem,” he said. “But in the end, it was not too difficult.”

It rarely is for Nadal at a place he has lorded over the way no other man ever has at any Grand Slam tournament. Nadal dealt with that ultimately minor inconvenience and claimed his record-extending 11th French Open championship Sunday by displaying his foe-rattling excellence in a 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 victory over No. 7 seed Dominic Thiem.

“There is a reason why he won 11 times here,” said Thiem, a 24-year-old Austrian appearing in his first major final. “It’s definitely one of the best things somebody ever achieved in sport.”

Thiem was on the couch, watching on TV, in 2005, when Nadal earned his first Grand Slam trophy in Paris at age 19. That began a run of four consecutive French Open triumphs through 2008. He added five straight from 2010-14 and now has two in a row.

Throw in three titles at the U.S. Open, two at Wimbledon and one at the Australian Open, and Nadal is up to 17 majors, second among men only to Roger Federer’s 20. The two stars have combined to win the past six Slams.

The victory also allowed the 32-year-old Nadal to hold onto the No. 1 ranking, ahead of Federer.

If there were any reason for a bit of intrigue entering Sunday, it was this: Thiem beat Nadal on red clay at Rome in May 2017 and again at Madrid last month.

But those are not quite the same as the French Open, where Nadal is 86-2 for his career.

“I am sure you will win here in the next couple of years,” Nadal told Thiem afterward.

Against many other opponents — maybe ANY other — Thiem would have made things interesting. He pounded huge serves that topped 135 mph (220 kph) — about 25 mph (40 kph) better than Nadal’s fastest — and translated into seven aces but also had five double-faults. He took the biggest of big cuts on groundstrokes, his feet leaving the ground as he threw his whole body into them, as if the very outcome — not of any individual point, but the whole shebang — depended on the strength of that one whip of his white racket. That led to 34 winners (eight more than Nadal) but also 42 unforced errors (18 more than Nadal).

It worked. For a bit.

Until 4-all, 15-all in the opening set, to be precise. Nadal held for 5-4, and Thiem basically handed over the next game — and the set — with four mistakes. A volley into the net. A forehand wide. A forehand into the net. A forehand long.

“Terrible misses,” Thiem acknowledged.

Just like that, Nadal was off on a five-game burst to lead 3-0 in the second set.

By then, Nadal was finding his spots. One down-the-line forehand winner landed right at the baseline, leaving Thiem sagging his shoulders and muttering. Another forehand winner from Nadal found a corner, and Thiem yelled toward his coach.

It was a cloudy and steamy afternoon, with the temperature at 77 degrees (24 Celsius) and the humidity approaching 70 percent. Midway through the opening set, Nadal’s aqua T-shirt was so soaked with sweat it stuck to him. Those conditions might have contributed to the cramping that affected Nadal about two hours into the final, at 2-1 in the third set.

“I was not able to move the hand, the finger,” Nadal said. “I was not (in) control of my finger.”

His uncle thought wrapping around Nadal’s left forearm was too tight. When he first halted play, Nadal removed that tape, which he said let his circulation improve. At the following changeover, he was given a salt pill by a doctor and had his left forearm massaged by a trainer. After guzzling water during that break, Nadal felt better and was back to playing his unmistakable brand of nearly unbeatable clay-court tennis.

Shortly, he’d be holding the silver trophy, the one he knows so well, and crying.

A few hours earlier, as Nadal and Thiem warmed up, the booming voice of the announcer at Court Philippe Chatrier detailed the bona fides of both. Nadal’s introduction included a year-by-year accounting of every time he’d already won the French Open.

The crowd responded at the mention of 2005, initially offering polite applause. It added more voices by the time 2008 rolled around. The crescendo rose to a full-throated roar for 2017.

Go ahead and 2018 to the lengthy list.

“If you tell me seven, eight years ago that I will be here … having this trophy with me again, I will tell you that is something almost impossible,” Nadal said. “But here we are.”

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Simone Biles routing field, edging note card at U.S. Gymnastics Championships

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BOSTON — Simone Biles leads the field by a whopping 3.1 points halfway through the U.S. Gymnastics Championships. She beat the number at the bottom of the note card in her locker at the World Champions Centre in Texas by a much smaller margin.

No matter the perspective, Biles was more dominant on Friday night than during most of the Rio Olympic cycle. In just her second meet in two years. Nine months after returning to training after a 14-month break.

Biles tallied the highest score on every apparatus in the field and the world’s highest all-around score since Rio — 60.1 points. The second-highest score since Rio? Biles’ 58.7 from her comeback meet at the U.S. Classic three weeks ago.

“At Classics, I was still easing back into everything and kind of feeling the surroundings and getting used to competing again,” Biles, 21, said on the fifth anniversary of her first U.S. all-around title. “I feel like today I really embraced it.”

NATIONALS: Scores | TV/Stream Schedule

In the last Olympic cycle, Biles averaged a 1.94-point lead after the first day of nationals.

She rolls into the final day of competition Sunday, looking to become the first woman to win five U.S. all-around titles and the first non-teen to win since 1971. And send another message ahead of October’s world championships.

Morgan Hurd, who won the 2017 World all-around title in Biles’ absence, is in a distant second after four clean routines. The margin between Biles and Hurd is greater than the margin between Hurd and the eighth-place gymnast.

Asked to put her 60-pointer in perspective, Biles brought up the note card.

“I think it says 60 at the bottom,” said Biles, who hit 62.366 in Rio under a different scoring system.

Biles hit 60 points in a practice meet at her gym right before she left for the U.S. Classic. Her new coaches, Cecile and Laurent Landi, encouraged Biles to keep the visual reminder placed in her locker leading up to nationals.

“I wanted to show her that she could reach that score,” Laurent Landi said. “It’s not a big deal. If she does normal, she can be there.”

But nobody else can. Biles had 25.4 total points in difficulty on Friday. The next-highest gymnast (Hurd) had 22.7.

Biles essentially began the meet with a 2.7-point head start. She then was judged to have better overall execution than everybody else, even though she had the disadvantage of performing harder routines.

“She’s just mentally there,” said Riley McCusker, who led Biles going into the last rotation at the U.S. Classic and is in third place here. “She can take that time off and [be] physically there, too.”

BILES ROUTINES: Balance Beam | Floor Exercise | Uneven Bars | Vault 1 | Vault 2

Biles’ flaw in her comeback meet three weeks ago was the uneven bars. She fell trying a more difficult routine than in Rio.

On Friday, Biles nailed her bars set, receiving applause from Laurent Landi, who coached Madison Kocian to a bars silver in Rio.

Biles has never won a national title on bars. At the Olympics, she had the highest scores in the all-around on beam, floor and vault and the seventh-highest score on bars.

“She needs to go through more mental belief that she [belongs] at this level on the bars,” said Laurent Landi, a 40-year-old former French gymnast.

Landi insisted Biles was not at her best Friday. He noted her two overcooked tumbling passes on floor that cost her six tenths for going out of bounds. Imperfect landings on other events. He dismissed Biles’ lead and said he already has plans for upgraded routines before worlds, next year and possibly in the Olympic year.

“Sometimes when it’s difficult in the gym, we, my wife and I, try just to remind her who she’s trying to beat,” he said. “It’s herself.”

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GYM NATIONALS: TV/Stream Schedule | Where Are The Final Five?

Laurie Hernandez faces big decisions before comeback

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BOSTON — Laurie Hernandez still hopes to compete in 2019, but she must find a coach and a gym first. And transition from conditioning to regular gymnastics training.

“Kind of dipping my toe in the water,” she said Friday at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, where she is strictly a spectator.

Hernandez hasn’t competed since earning team gold and balance beam silver in Rio. Other than Simone Biles, she is the only member of the Final Five openly expressing a desire to return to elite competition next year.

“Because I’m still passionate about it,” she said. “Ever since I was a little girl I’ve always loved it, and I still do. It’s still really important to me.”

Hernandez said she has been on gymnastics equipment every so often but not consistently. She has said hello to new U.S. high-performance team coordinator Tom Forster.

She hopes to pick Aly Raisman‘s brain about coming back. Raisman took almost a year off after the 2012 London Games, then trained for a full year before returning to competition in March 2015.

Unlike Raisman, Hernandez said there is no unfinished business from the Olympics that motivates her.

“I know what I’m getting myself into,” Hernandez said. “It’s kind of like curiosity killed the cat but satisfaction brought it back. Being 16, being so curious, not really knowing what I’m walking into, that was such an interesting experience [in Rio].”

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