For Rafael Nadal, make it 12 French Open titles. And 18 Grand Slams overall, moving closer than ever to Roger Federer‘s total.
Nadal dug deep, like only he can do at Roland Garros, to extinguish the world’s second-best clay-courter, Dominic Thiem, 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 in a rematch of last year’s final.
“I still hold the passion for what I am doing, that’s all,” Nadal told John McEnroe on NBC. “Then, of course, you need to be a little bit of lucky and be ready for these two weeks. Happened a lot of times in my career.”
Nadal, 93-2 in a 15-year French Open career, now has twice as many titles at this Slam than any other man (Björn Borg). He became the first player, man or woman, to win any Slam 12 times. Margaret Court won 11 Australian Championships, though some were played in an amateur era.
“Twelve times here,” Thiem said in the trophy presentation, followed with an incredulous cackle. “It’s unreal.”
Nadal moved within two Slams of Federer’s record tally for the first time in his career, after failing in all 14 previous majors with a chance to do it.
“It’s a motivation, but it’s not my obsession,” Nadal said of the chase. “If you ask me whether I would like it, of course. If that’s a goal in my career, no. It’s not what makes me get up every morning or go and train and play.”
Sunday’s turning point came at the beginning of the third set. Nadal, after dropping a set to Thiem for the first time in four French Open meetings, won the first 11 points in breaking the Austrian twice. Broken is a good term. Thiem won just two games the rest of the match.
“I dropped in my game for some reason,” Thiem said. “It’s not that bad against some other guys, but Rafa stepped on me.”
Thiem’s task was unprecedented, to beat Novak Djokovic and Nadal in back-to-back matches at a Slam (and on back-to-back days).
“I just come from heaven to hell, I guess,” he said. “You have to beat seven good players to win this tournament, and then towards the end, you have to beat one or two true legends.”
Still, he padded an argument the last two weeks as one of the greatest in history not to win a Slam. He is the only active man younger than 30 to reach a final and not win a major. The men to make four Grand Slam semifinals and two finals, like Thiem has done, and never lift a trophy: Todd Martin, Miloslav Mecir and Cedric Pioline.
“Sorry,” Nadal said to Thiem. “Keep going. You will win this for sure.”
Nadal opened his year by withdrawing from an Australian Open tune-up event with a thigh strain, raising concerns for a player who has missed Slams due to wrist and knee problems.
After making the Australian Open final, where he was routed by Djokovic, he had to withdraw again before a Federer clash in Indian Wells in March. This time, a knee injury. Then Nadal lost his first three clay-court events this spring: to Fabio Fognini in Monte Carlo, Thiem in Barcelona and Stefanos Tsitsipas in Madrid.
In his last event before Roland Garros, Nadal beat both Tsitsipas and Djokovic in Rome, consolidating his favorite status with his first title of 2019.
“I have been going through some very tough moments, the last 18 months,” he said. “When I started the clay-court season without the best preparation, have been some low moments for me. The thing that I am proud of, more than even the trophy, that I was able to, with the help of my family and team, keep going.”
Nadal heads to the season’s last two Slams with a chance to draw even with Federer. But it will be difficult, no more so than at Wimbledon in three weeks. Nadal last won the grass Slam in 2010 and has made it past the fourth round just once in the last seven years.
Djokovic should enter as the favorite, but he’s now three Slams behind Nadal. The Spaniard is doing his best to distance himself from and draw near to, arguably, his two biggest rivals for greatest in history.
There are no arguments, though, when it comes to spring time in Paris.
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