The years go by. We get older, and we watch our loved ones do the same. We move through the stages of life, from infancy to adulthood to the hereafter. We love and we lose, we suffer tragedy and revel in triumph. And through it all, Rafael Nadal just keeps winning French Opens.
Nadal defeated Dominic Thiem 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 to claim his astounding 12th French Open. Thiem put up a touch of a fight early on, even claiming a rare set from Nadal, but in the end, he learned again what the rest of the world has long known: there’s no tougher challenge in all of sports than trying to defeat Nadal at Roland Garros.
With the victory, Nadal now has more Grand Slam wins at the French Open alone than almost any other player has everywhere — more than Borg, more than Laver, more than Connors and Agassi and McEnroe.
Nadal had won 11 French Opens coming into Sunday, and in the opening set, it wasn’t hard to see why. Thiem played some of the best tennis of his life, covering every angle and rocketing his devastating one-handed backhand … and he still ended up losing that first, hour-long set 6-3.
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But in the second set, Thiem found life. He and Nadal traded foundation-cracking punches, holding serve after serve. Thiem managed to win the set by the narrowest of margins, 7-5, a remarkable achievement in many regards. It was Thiem’s first set win on clay against Nadal in 10 attempts, and it marked only the second time Nadal has ever lost a second set at the French Open, the first since 2007.
Thiem reached that mountaintop only to see an entire range still awaiting him. See, beating Nadal in a set at Roland Garros doesn’t intimidate him; it just makes him mad. Nadal broke Thiem on four straight points in the first game of the third set, dusted him in four straight points in the second game, and then broke Thiem again en route to a 4-0 third-set lead. He would go on to win the set 6-1, setting up a decisive and crucial fourth set.
But by then, Thiem seemed gassed, both mentally and physically. Nadal won the first three games of the fourth set and nearly broke Thiem yet another time. By then, it was all over but the grunting, and Thiem’s dead-cat bounce came to rest. Nadal broke Thiem to go up 5-1, and minutes later, La Coupe des Mousquetaires, the champions’ trophy, was his yet again.
The fact that Nadal won yet another final at Roland Garros isn’t at all surprising; coming into Sunday, he was 92-2 in matches all-time at the French Open, a literally unbelievable stat. He arrived in the final by beating Roger Federer in straight, unremarkable, relentless sets in the semifinal, a match that might well signal Federer’s final appearance at Roland Garros.
Thiem, meanwhile, only had to fight his way through the No. 1 player in the world. It took two days, four delays and five sets, but Thiem knocked off Novak Djokovic in his own semifinal. The victory denied Djokovic the chance to once again hold all four majors at once … and maybe, just maybe, served as a preview of tennis’s future.
Thiem remains the best active bet to break the decade-plus of dominance that the Big Three — Nadal, Federer, Djokovic — have held over the world of men’s tennis. He had quite the French Open even prior to the final, from the moment where he got bounced from his own press conference to make room for Serena Williams:
… to the brilliant tweener against Gael Monfils that stands as the best shot of the tournament:
Thiem has a bright future ahead of him in tennis. And perhaps, sometime in 2075, he’ll be able to take a second set off Nadal in France.