What does it feel like to get home after a tiring day at work? Soothing? Relaxed? Like you’d rather not be anywhere else in the world?
Rafael Nadal has probably been feeling that way about returning to Roland Garros every year since 2005. This is where all the worries of his past are shorn away, where all his discomforts disappear. No matter how many tough losses he may suffer or how many injuries he may accumulate during the rest of the year, Nadal finds his inner peace in Paris.
Never mind that the way he plays once he takes the court at the French Open is anything but peaceful. That his bludgeoning of the ball resembles something akin to a battering ram violently bringing a castle down. Or that his tennis produces such intense stress in his opponents that they all look like they’d happily commit suicide rather than endure a single more minute of being on the court with him.
Dominic Thiem wore that look plenty of times during his 3-6, 7-5, 1-6, 1-6 loss to Nadal in the men’s final. This was his third straight loss to the Spaniard at Roland Garros (and fourth overall), and the first time he had taken a set. And yet in a weird way, he seemed farther away from defeating Nadal in Paris than he’s ever been.
It has to be said that that didn’t seem to be the case in the first seven games of the match. Those frenetic 45 minutes that launched the contest were evenly balanced and grippingly hard-fought, with very little separating the two men.
Thiem went up a break at 3-2, gave it back to make it 3-3, and then had a break point again to go up 4-3. During that period Nadal was playing close to his best, and yet Thiem was matching him – in offence as well as defence. The Austrian repeatedly gave Nadal a taste of his own medicine by digging out balls from seemingly hopeless positions, before turning things around with a big forehand or backhand and eventually winning the point.
If Thiem had got the break in that game, the complexion of the match could well have turned out to be different. He wasn’t just hitting Nadal off the court – a strategy that is tough to maintain in a best of five sets encounter – but was also staying with him in the rallies and forcing him to do something different.
The two were trading viciously curling topspin forehands and ferociously penetrating crosscourt backhands, with the Austrian more than holding his own. If Thiem was ever going to defeat Nadal at Roland Garros, this was how most would have envisioned it happening.
But the reality, of course, is that Nadal didn’t get broken in that crucial seventh game. Sensing a real threat to his empire from the man widely acknowledged as his heir (or usurper, depending on your viewpoint), Nadal dug in his heels and refused to concede an inch.
A couple of solid serves later he had the hold. The moment of danger had passed, and to nobody’s surprise, Thiem got broken in the very next game to cede control of the set – and eventually the match.
Thiem did continue asking questions after losing the first set, but that only seemed to be delaying the inevitable. In the second he kept holding serve by pulling the trigger early in the rallies. Trying to go toe-to-toe with Nadal hadn’t worked in the first set, so Thiem went to the next best option of trying to take the racquet out of the Spaniard’s hands.
While that helped him in his service games, it did the exact opposite in his return games. He won a grand total of one point on Nadal’s serve until 5-6, as he kept misfiring on his go-for-broke returns.
Not many would have anticipated that Nadal would blink first in that grasscourt-like set, and yet somehow he did. Three unforced errors from the Spaniard at 5-6 gave Thiem the set, and suddenly the match was dead even.
The start of the third set was perhaps just as important as that Nadal hold at 3-3 in the first. Irrespective of the fact that Thiem had played better in the first set than the second (with totally opposing results), he now had the chance to start afresh. But there was a slight delay on the changeover as Nadal took a bathroom timeout, and not for the first time in the tournament, Thiem came out cold after the break.
Three shanked groundstrokes gifted Nadal the break on a platter, and the Spaniard didn’t look back after that. Over the next two sets he rushed forward with gusto to shorten the points before Thiem could, winning 85 percent of the points at the net which included some incredible stop volleys that even Thiem had to applaud. Nadal also went on a tear with his nearly flawless backhand, and made it impossible for Thiem to hit through it. No matter how hard the Austrian hit to that wing, the ball always came back with even more pace, leaving him gasping for air.
Nadal took the first 11 points of the third set, and would end up winning 24 of the 31 points played in it for an astonishing 77 percent success rate. The fourth set was a little more competitive, but the result was predictably similar. Thiem just didn’t seem to have any self-belief or energy left after going down early in the third set, and Nadal didn’t seem in any mood to take his foot off the pedal.
At the three-hour mark, the Spaniard had clinched match point – and with it his 12th Roland Garros title. Was any other result really possible?
In terms of scoreline, this was a sign of progress for Thiem. 12 games is 33 percent better than nine games (his best result against Nadal before this year), and one set is definitely preferable to no sets. But you have to wonder whether his improvement rate is good enough to bridge the gap while Nadal is still playing.
Yes, Thiem did get the short end of the straw with the scheduling, and by the end of the match, he clearly wasn’t in any kind of shape to pull off the biggest challenge in tennis. Can he ever sustain his first set play long enough to fully subdue Nadal though? Despite bringing out his best mixture of attack and defence Thiem still couldn’t grab more than a set in the entire match; what hope does he have of ever winning three?
That question will probably be asked again next year, because Nadal clearly hasn’t had his fill of lording it over the clay of Paris. This is truly Nadal’s territory, and as Thiem and many others have discovered over the years, it is immensely hard to break into.
The Spaniard’s continued investment in winning French Open trophies – did you see how emotional he got after the 12th, despite the fact that it should have become a habit for him by now? – is not something that any of us can really identify with. So unbelievable is his dominance in Paris that we’ve almost become numb to it; no reaction to his achievement seems appropriate enough, and nothing we say seems complimentary enough.
Would it suffice to say that after a tumultuous first six months of 2019, Nadal is back home again? Forget about the 12 titles for a moment; think, instead, about how he has always turned everything around in Paris, come rain or shine or earthquake or tornado.
Nadal belongs in Roland Garros in a way that no person has ever belonged in any place on earth. The next time he suffers early losses in Monte Carlo, Barcelona or Madrid, we would be wise to remember that.
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Updated Date: Jun 10, 2019 09:16:23 IST