In a world lavish with ball-maulers who dream of greeting a title at cherished Roland Garros just once — just once! — in life, Rafael Nadal has a collection of such moments so vast it lacks maybe only a handstand (which he doubtless could master) or wearing purple (which he doubtless could flatter). His 11th French Open title, wrung Sunday opposite eighth-ranked, 24-year-old Austrian Dominic Thiem, deepened a Parisian habit both routine by now and unimaginable by anyone.
“Definitely one of the best things somebody ever achieved in sports,” Thiem said after the 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 finish.
“For me, it’s unbelievable to think about this, that Rafael has won 11 times,” said Toni Nadal, the champion’s uncle and former longtime coach, who returned Sunday to watch.
“In my career I achieved much more than I ever dreamed,” Rafael Nadal said.
Upon holding the Coupe des Mousquetaires that goes to the men’s singles winner, the 32-year-old from Mallorca wept, perhaps for variety but in truth stemming from bygone doubt. He had won at his paradise months after a trying winter of retiring from an Australian Open quarterfinal and withdrawing from Acapulco, from Indian Wells, from Miami, from leg problems, from “a lot of months with problems,” as he said.
Not that he cared or cares, but no one else has won so many of any of the four coveted tennis events, with the exception of Margaret Court’s 11 Australian Open titles, four of which came during the Open era that began in 1968. As the sound of Nadal’s ball-
striking groans echoing through Court Philippe Chatrier has become one of the melodic fixtures of Paris, he has beaten seven different finalists, counting Roger Federer four times and Novak Djokovic twice, and used the French Open to hoard the bulk of his 17 Grand Slam titles, second in the long history of men’s tennis. He has beaten Roland Garros finalists from Argentina, Switzerland, Sweden, Serbia, Spain and now Austria. He has beaten — and beaten and beaten — with such regularity that all the match themes have become anticipatable, like a recurring theater show that offers awe if not suspense.
Did his opponent Sunday seem to spend the match operating chronically uphill? He did. Did Nadal provide improbable angles and spins that astonished even sage Nadal watchers? He did. Did Thiem sometimes produce shots that looked plenty good enough but then came banging back? Sure. Did any Thiem error, such as the little slew in his 4-5 service game in the first set, seem magnified because of the ever-looming steepness of the chore? It did. Was the match freighted with the reality that if the opponent wished to stay in a rally with Nadal, Nadal just wished to stay in it for longer? It was.
Nadal struck 26 winners to Thiem’s 34 yet made only 24 unforced errors to Thiem’s 42, with “unforced errors” a relative term in Nadal matches at Roland Garros. In the category of “forced errors,” Thiem suffered 37 to Nadal’s 21, even if it can be said that every error against Nadal in Paris is a forced error. Nadal suffered one service break in the fourth game of the match, which came as big news. He saved two of a mere three break points. He had the trainers visit his chair repeatedly, which might have supplied some viewers with mild intrigue and which resulted from a loss of feeling in one finger that had caused him some outright fear, quelled by the removal of the bandage upon it.
Then Thiem fought through four match points until his last return shoved itself long, and Nadal turned around and stood. Soon the crowd had given its mainstay a rousing cheer and a feeling he would call “difficult to describe.” Even after the winter doubt and the loss to Thiem on clay in Madrid in mid-May — Thiem had reminded everyone Friday that Madrid clay is not to be confused with Paris clay — Nadal had pulled back within three Grand Slams of Federer’s 20, then dispensed some of the wisdom that has propelled him to his odd perch of both commanding reign and unobtrusive ego.
“No, no, no,” he said. “I can’t always be thinking of more. Of course, I have ambition, of course. I have passion for what I am doing. But I have never been crazy about all this kind of stuff. No, you can’t be frustrated always if somebody has more money than you, if somebody has a bigger house than you, if somebody has more Grand Slams than you.
“You can’t live with that feeling, no? You have to do your way. And then you have to be happy with the things that are happening to you, no? Because if you are looking next to you, you can be frustrated thinking that people have more things than you in general terms. I am not this kind of person.”
He spoke this, of course, in Paris, so he waxed about the tournament volunteers and workers — “this great team of human people.” He said, “Since the first time I came here until today is a love story with this event.” He said of his continued drive, “Well, for me it’s difficult to explain because it becomes a little bit natural, no?” He said it seems implausible that it’s still going and still going strongly, these 13 long and grinding years since this same human person debuted at Roland Garros with sleeveless shirts, clam-
digger shorts, shoulder-length hair and MMA muscles, and, two days after his 19th birthday, won his first title and said, “I fight every point, every point, no?”
Even 13 more years on, nobody has said anything any truer.