Rafa Nadal’s French Open runs have begun to test the limits of language, among other things.
How many different ways can you summarize Nadal’s enduring invincibility on Court Philippe Chatrier? How do you register the appropriate awe at his 11 titles and his 86-2 record at Roland Garros when he continues to make it all look so routine, carving up opponents on the terre battue with such diabolical precision that the whole tournament retroactively feels like a pointless means to a specific and foreseeable end?
Nadal was 10-0 in French Open finals before Sunday’s tilt with Dominic Thiem. To win his 11th, he would have to go through the guy who’d accounted for his only two clay-court losses of the last two years. Seven years his junior, Thiem is a natural dirt-baller who’s found success on the surface by doing his best to replicate the Nadal blueprint: huge topspin, aided by a great, swooping follow-through, that can make the ball jump, dance, and accelerate through the court; and a combination of speed and power that allows him to play both defense and offense from well behind the baseline. The two had previously played nine head-to-head matches – remarkably, all of them on clay – and Thiem had won three, including two of the last four. If Nadal is the king of clay, Thiem is undoubtedly the crown prince.
And Nadal destroyed him. Outplanned, outworked, outmaneuvered, and straight-up outhit him en route to a drama-free 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 win.
Before the match, Thiem acknowledged the colossal challenge he faced, but said he had a plan for how to topple his opponent. Near as one could tell, that plan meant unloading on every ball, going for massive first serves, and putting every ounce of force he could muster behind his groundstrokes in an effort to hit around Nadal. It was probably his best hope, and it wasn’t like Thiem executed it poorly – he out-aced Nadal 7-0, and outwinnered him 34-26 – but it wasn’t nearly enough. Going so big meant Thiem landed just 58 percent of his first serves, and Nadal made him pay by winning 65 percent of second-serve return points. Thiem’s go-for-broke approach off the ground exacted a physical toll and produced heaps of unforced errors. Nadal kept him under constant pressure in the rallies and on the scoreboard, making him scrape and claw for every hold. Thiem played 102 service points in the match, compared to 82 for Nadal – an average of two additional points per service game.
Nadal didn’t just casually parry Thiem’s attack, though he did that plenty. He also took the fight back to Thiem, but with more precision and more variety. Nadal was deadly on the approach, winning 16-of-18 points at net. He was deadly on his serve, dropping just 10 first-serve points all match. He bamboozled Thiem with drop shots when the Austrian played deep in the court. And, as he does, he crushed some otherworldly forehands that only seemed to get more explosive as the match went on.
The sole source of drama was the medical timeout Nadal took midgame in the third set, while he was serving at 2-1, 30-0. He had a trainer work on his left hand and forearm, which he later explained had cramped and gone numb as a result of a too-tight tape job on his wrist. He came out of the timeout and seemed to play … better? He didn’t face a break point in the third set, and won 12-of-14 points on Thiem’s second serve. Ho hum. And then it was over, and Nadal hoisted his 11th Coupe des Mousquetaires, and the notion that Thiem could have done anything to prevent that outcome seemed absurd.
Nadal has lost one set in the last two French Opens combined (take a bow, Diego Schwartzman), and he’s now 111-2 lifetime in best-of-five matches on clay. In his consolation speech, Thiem recalled watching Nadal win his first French Open title, in 2005.
“I was 11 years old,” Thiem said. Thirteen years later, he earned himself the honor of being Nadal’s latest hapless victim on Philippe Chatrier.
At a certain point, the numbers start to lose meaning. When athletes achieve what Nadal has achieved at the French Open – which is to say, when they become dominant enough in a particular context to make their victories therein feel like inescapable facts of life – often the only thing that can bring the significance and scale of the achievement back into focus is a dramatic disruption of the pattern. Like Serena Williams’ loss at the 2015 US Open semis when she was two wins from the calendar Slam, or Novak Djokovic’s sudden collapse after winning his fourth straight major at the 2016 French Open, sometimes it’s necessary to be reminded that these outcomes, as predictable as they can feel, still require agency, and are not simply a matter of course.
Eventually, Nadal’s grip on this tournament will slacken, and we’ll be able to appreciate the full scope of what he’s done (and is still doing). But for now, his French Open dominance is basically resistant to analysis. The superlatives are worn out. If we’d known he would still be winning these titles with this kind of ease at age 32, maybe we’d have kept a few in the chamber.
Every title Nadal wins at Roland Garros makes his big-picture achievement that much more extraordinary, but on the micro level, it feels like the only observations left to make are the most rudimentary, quantitative kind: 11 is more than 10. Nadal already held the record, by a wide margin, for most titles won at any Grand Slam in the Open era; he’s now extended that record.
Even Nadal has seemingly run out of ways to contextualize a feat that grows increasingly historic each spring.
“It’s amazing. I can’t describe my feelings,” he said in his post-match interview. “It’s not even a dream to win here 11 times, because it’s impossible.”
Perhaps the greatest compliment Nadal is due, then, is that he’s made the impossible feel inevitable. His greatness is defined by its normalcy.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)