By Liz Clarke in Paris
PARIS — When Rafael Nadal speaks about what he does on a tennis court, the word he chooses is “fight.”
It is the only way the Spaniard knows how to practice, battling for every ball for two and three hours at a time — the more oppressive the heat, the better. And it is the only way he knows how to compete.
It’s as if without struggle, in Nadal’s view, there is no point to tennis, no authentic way of knowing he is alive.
In Sunday’s French Open final, Austria’s Dominic Thiem threw every shot he had at the Spaniard. All it did was incite the beast that is Nadal, who proved, with a 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 triumph, that he remains peerless on the red clay of Roland Garros, where his match record is 93-2.
For the 12th time in the past 15 years, Nadal hoisted the French Open’s Coupe des Mousquetaires.
No other player has won 12 singles championships in any single Grand Slam event. With his latest, Nadal now has 18 major titles, putting him within two of tying Roger Federer’s record of 20.
Asked about that tantalizing proximity, Nadal said it wasn’t remotely on his mind on this special day or, in fact, ever.
Conceding that he and Federer have pushed each other throughout their careers, Nadal said: “I never try to think about whether I’m going to catch Roger or not. Honestly, I am not worried about this stuff. You cannot be frustrated all the time because the neighbor has a bigger house than you or a bigger TV. That’s not the way that I see the life.”
Nadal fell flat on his back upon defeating the 25-year-old Thiem, who played remarkably well less than 24 hours after vanquishing world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in a weather-interrupted semifinal that spanned two days.
Thiem unloaded blistering groundstrokes, struck impossible angles with his one-handed backhand and, in the early going, kept the pressure on Nadal’s reliable serve. If Thiem erred at all, it might have been in according Nadal a bit too much respect by standing so far behind the baseline, giving the champion a split-second’s extra time to plot strategy and react.
Thiem also complicated his challenge, in an odd way, by winning the second set. Nobody had won a set against Nadal in a French Open final since 2014, when Djokovic claimed the opening set before succumbing in four.
After a bathroom break to focus his thoughts, Nadal proceeded to win 16 of the next 17 points and claim the third set in 24 minutes.
But what else could Thiem do?
All Thiem wanted after taking a straight-sets thrashing from Nadal in last year’s French Open final was a chance to try again. To show — ideally against Nadal, the greatest clay-court player in history — that he had improved and had the makings of a worthy rival.
Even in defeat, Thiem achieved that Sunday.
The first set was chock-full of long, physical rallies, with Thiem proving every bit the human backboard that Nadal is on clay. He answered Nadal’s forehand blasts in kind, showing no signs of fatigue from his five-set ordeal against Djokovic, and managed some wicked angles that yanked the Spaniard from one sideline to the other.
Nadal claimed the opening set in 53 minutes and, by that point, was well into his ritual of swapping sweaty shirts for fresh.
One set in arrears, Thiem’s chief asset was the knowledge that he had beaten Nadal four times on clay, including their most recent meeting, in Barcelona six weeks earlier. It’s the rare player, regardless of ranking, who truly believes he can beat Nadal on clay. The fourth-ranked Thiem had that belief. And it sustained him through a tight second set that he eked out with a service break as Nadal, at 5-6, failed to force a tiebreaker.
On the surface, it seemed the match was just beginning. The score was knotted at one set apiece. In fact, it was the turning point.
Instead of the momentum shifting in Thiem’s favor, it ignited Nadal. Thiem won only two games from there.
Explained Thiem, still processing his swift and irrevocable reversal of fortune an hour after the match ended: “[Nadal] is one of the greatest of all time. Today I saw why. I played very good the first two sets, and I had a little drop, which against most of the players is not too bad. But [Nadal] took the chance, and he stepped right on me.”
As if with the flip of a switch, there seemed to be no ball Nadal couldn’t retrieve.
Although Nadal’s forays to the net are rare, he rarely errs once there. On Sunday against Thiem, he was ruthless, winning 23 of his 27 points at the net.
“The last time he missed a volley was, like, seven years ago,” Thiem said with a smile.
Combined with his outstanding court coverage (a combination of raw speed and expert sliding ability), Nadal’s proficiency at the net made Thiem think twice about drop shots, denying him one more tactic that would have won a few points against lesser opponents.
After watching in disbelief as Nadal raced from well behind the left corner of the baseline to turn a back-spinning drop shot into a winner, Thiem could only offer a thumbs-up and shake his head.
When the three-hour match finally ended and Nadal picked himself up from his back-flop on the court, his sweat-soaked shirt caked with the red clay he loves so much, the two shared an embrace at the net.
In the trophy ceremony that followed, in which Nadal again raised the Coupe de Mousquetaires for the 15,000 in the stands of Philippe Chatrier, the Spaniard reserved his first words for Thiem, whom he praised for his intensity and passion.
“Keep going,” Nadal said. “You will win this, for sure.”
Then, alternating among English, French and Spanish, Nadal thanked everyone from the tournament’s ball kids to Spain’s former king, 81-year-old Juan Carlos I, who looked on with pride.
Thiem was equally gracious.
“You are such an amazing champion, such a legend for our sport,” Thiem said. “It’s amazing — 12 times here. It’s unreal. I will try again next year.”
Live updates from the match
By Ava Wallace in Washington
Fourth set: Nadal wins the match, 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1
Rafael Nadal took his record 12th French Open title and 18th major title overall in what turned out to be a less competitive match than what the first two sets promised. Dominic Thiem, who would have claimed his first major with a victory, hung in for two sets before fading both mentally and physically. Nadal maintained his perfect record in finals at Roland Garros; he is the first player in history to win 12 singles titles at the same Grand Slam tournament.
Fourth set: Nadal in control with a 4-1 lead
Dominic Thiem fought back from 0-40 to take the fourth game of this set, but it’s the only thing he’s been able to do against Rafael Nadal lately. Nadal is still owning the Austrian at net, and he isn’t just beating him — Nadal is frustrating Thiem, as well. To mount what would be an incredible comeback with Nadal two games from the championship, Thiem needs to be at his absolute best. That includes the mental game in addition to the physical stuff, and Thiem’s fading on both fronts.
Third set: Nadal wins, 6-1, to take a 6-3, 5-7, 6-1 lead
Thiem expended a lot of energy winning that second set, allowing Nadal to zip through the third without much push back. The Spaniard is a set away from his 12th French Open title.
Third set: Thiem finally on the board, Nadal leads 4-1
Well, that was fast. Nadal responded to losing the second set by winning the first eight points of the third, and the first four games in 13 minutes. Nadal was lethal at net, and Thiem wasn’t able to get a foothold until the fifth game.
Second set: Thiem wins, 7-5, to even the match at 6-3, 5-7
Dominic Thiem upped his level to win his first set ever against Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros — it only took him 10 tries. Thiem pushed deep balls at Nadal, who tightened up just a big at the end of the set there, to keep the 33-year-old on defense. Neither player looks totally in control of the match yet, but we are seeing some amazing tennis.
Second set: Thiem holds serve, leads 4-3
After getting broken at this juncture in the first set, Thiem held his serve this time. The 25-year-old’s return game has dipped but he’s managed to stay even with Nadal and earn some quicker points on his serve. Keeping up with Nadal physically is impressive enough through two sets, but the question is if Thiem’s legs can last in the long run after two straight days of matches leading up to the final.
First set: Nadal wins, 6-3
Nadal didn’t wait long to make an adjustment that will (ideally, for him) avoid turning this match into a five-hour marathon, and it wasn’t the fresh shirt he changed into seven games in. He started playing closer to the baseline and moving forward in the middle of this first set to rush Thiem and make him miss a little more, and it worked: Nadal took the first set in less than an hour after an evenly matched first six games.
First set: Deadlocked at 3-3
Thiem broke Nadal’s serve in the fifth game of the match to go up 3-2 with some spectacular shot-making and court coverage, which is exactly what he needs to beat Nadal. He also likely needs to win the first set to have a good chance at winning the whole thing because Nadal’s play usually rises throughout a match — which makes the subpar service game to allow Nadal to break back and even things up at 3-3 a big missed opportunity for the Austrian.
Wallace reported from Washington.