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 now 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 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 gonna 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. No man 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 suffering a straight-sets thrashing by 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 tennis 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 with 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 sign of fatigue from his five-sets 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’d beaten Nadal four times previously 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 players were 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.
Still processing his swift and irrevocable reversal of fortune an hour after the match ended, Thiem said 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.
Though Nadal’s forays to the net are rare, he rarely errs once there. Sunday against Thiem, he was ruthless, winning 23 of his 27 points at net.
“The last time he missed a volley was, like, seven years ago,” Thiem said afterward 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 offered a thumbs-up gesture and shook his head.
When the three-hour match 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 to Thiem. “You will win this, for sure.”
Then, alternating between English, French and his native 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.”