Rafa does the dozen

By beating Thiem, Nadal wins third straight Roland-Garros title and 12th overall.

Rafael Nadal© Corinne Dubreuil / FFT
 - Dan Imhoff

Rafael Nadal’s indomitable grip on Roland-Garros finals has firmed with the Spanish great collecting an unprecedented 12th trophy from the same Grand Slam on Sunday.

Austrian fourth seed Dominic Thiem fell victim in the title match for the second year running, this time salvaging a set for the first time in four meetings with Nadal in the French capital.

Nadal completed the ‘perfect dozen’ 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 and lay prone with his hands across his face after Thiem’s final forehand drifted long.

After three hours and four minutes, under grey skies, on his favourite ochre-earthen domain, Nadal had done it again.

This is his 18th major singles title. Two thirds of those have come on the terre battue and he is now just two shy of Roger Federer’s all-time mark.

Defiant when tested, daring on chances and ultimately dominant, it was a humble Nadal who offered his apologies in the immediate aftermath.

“First thing I want to say is congratulations to Dominic,” Nadal said. “I feel sorry because he deserves it. I really hope he has chance to win in the future. He has unbelievable passion and intensity for this sport.”

For two high-quality sets, this was shaping as among the Spaniard’s most fiercely contested Grand Slam finals. Against Thiem, he faced an opponent who had made gradual improvements on each Grand Slam defeat dished out.

This time was different for Thiem. Having brought in Chilean Olympic gold medallist Nicolas Massu as his new coach, the 25-year-old gave Nadal plenty to ponder early on.

The Austrian needed four attempts to end a searching net exchange before drawing on a heavy inside-out forehand to set up an easy smash to break for 3-2.

Hordes of white Panama hats rose when much of the Court Philippe-Chatrier crowd stood to cheer on Thiem’s almost super-human efforts. But the No.4 seed could not consolidate and it would be the last game he would take for the set.

Le record de fréquentation a été battu en 2019. ©Pauline Ballet / FFT

If there was one statistic Thiem was keen to block out it was Nadal’s flawless record from this point. The Spaniard had never come up short in 104 best-of-five-set matches on clay after winning the opening set.

Thiem had to stick to his guns.

Neither player faced a break point until the 11th game when the Austrian clocked a backhand down the line to draw the error from Nadal. With it came a first set point.

Having claimed just one point on Nadal’s opening five service games of the set, Thiem had now snaffled up his first chance at the most opportune of times. And he levelled when his opponent pounded a backhand long, prompting the crowd to again rise as one.

It was the first set Thiem had taken off Nadal in four meetings at Roland-Garros and the first set Nadal had dropped in a Roland-Garros final since 2014.

As most find out the hard way, however, one dip in intensity and Nadal makes you pay, often with compound interest.

The No.2 seed ripped through 16 of 17 points en route to 4-0 and did not surrender a point on serve throughout set No.3 as he tore through it in just 20 minutes.

From there, Nadal never looked in doubt.

“It’s very tough right now because I gave everything I had these two weeks,” Thiem said. “Rafa well done. Of course I’m very sad to lose but you’re such an amazing champion, such a legend of our sport … I will try again next year for sure.

“So many people coming, friends, family, means a lot to me. I hope that you’ll be here when I maybe win my title here.”

Twelve - and counting

The frightening prospect for Thiem and fellow Grand Slam pretenders is that Nadal’s trophy-hogging journey in Paris may not yet be on the verge of its final stop.

Accepting this as the norm does not diminish the significance of each of Nadal’s 12 title runs at Roland-Garros.

The tournament’s next most prolific champion in the Open Era, Bjorn Borg, only won half Nadal’s haul. Borg’s tally, too, is double the next bunch of clay-court legends.

“Being honest I know how tough it is to lose finals but that’s sport,” Nadal said. “If I wanted to lose to someone it would be to you.”

The gap has closed at Roland-Garros, but the distance remains profound.