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Eleven for eleven
Rafael Nadal wins 11th Roland-Garros title.
Rafael Nadal, once again the uncontrollable sporting force of nature that continues to inspire awe in us all, rampaged his way to an 11th Roland-Garros title in his 11th final here on Sunday to extend perhaps the most fantastic domination of a single global championship that sport has witnessed.
It was a no less brutal, brilliant and breathtaking performance than any of the other 10 but his 6-4 6-3 6-2 triumph over a plucky but outclassed and overwhelmed final debutant Dominic Thiem may have been even more startling in its manner, the emphatic way he dismantled the Austrian pretender’s blistering game and imposed his own monstrous version.
It was a complete performance and a complete demolition. And for Thiem, seeking to be the first Austrian Grand Slam winner since Thomas Muster here 23 years ago, a completely demoralising experience as he never attained the heights of which he’s capable.
The 24-year-old was suffocated in the king’s lair, the only time it seemed possible he might come up for air being in the third set when Nadal, 2-1 and 30-love up, suddenly called for the trainer, struggling with cramp in the fingers of his racquet hand.
Nadal reckoned it was a scary moment but it proved to be only the slimmest of hopes for Thiem and was soon extinguished mercilessly as Nadal broke him once more before serving out for the title in two hours and 42 minutes of one-sided fare. It says much about the disheartened Thiem's spirit that he still saved four match points at 5-2 before Nadal finally put him out of his misery.
And as Nadal looked to the heavens and later shed a few tears with La Coupe des Mousquetaires grasped to his chest amid all the cheers, it almost seemed as if ‘La Undecima’ meant more to the great man than any of the previous wins.
“It was a very special moment to receive that minute or two minutes of the crowd supporting me, the feeling in that moment was difficult to describe. Very emotional for me.”
For that long-haired kid in the green vest and pantaloons who had first wooed us here with his 2005 triumph has grown into a worldly 32-year-old who muses philosophically about how he may not have too much time left in his career. So every title becomes that more precious.
And more wondrous to behold. Yes, the statistics continue to amaze. Like how this win ties Margaret Court's all-time record of most singles crowns won at any single Grand Slam by any player, in the Australian Open between 1960 and 1973. And how Nadal is now back to within three of Roger Federer’s record 20 Grand Slams. And how he has now won 111 best-of-five-sets clay court matches and lost just two.
Yet once again, the most surreal thing was just how Nadal, for all those injury setbacks that have tried vainly to pockmark one of sport’s landmark careers, somehow seems better than ever on his clay domain, more complete, more intimidating, more ruthless. His defence was supreme, his attack coruscating.
How did I ever manage to defeat him on clay before, Thiem’s head-shaking seemed to say constantly. It looked as if Chatrier had turned into his very own Room 101, the torture chamber where twice before, Big Brother Nadal had subjected him to his worst tennis nightmares, allowing him only seven games in each of their two matches.
This time, he did better. But only just. He fought well but unevenly, striving too hard. The ledger told of Thiem’s 42 unforced errors, a brutal tally. Yet was it unfair? They felt like forced errors, exerted by the constant pressure, mental and physical, from the champion’s burning racquet.
The great Ken Rosewall, the first winner at Roland-Garros in the Open era, who presented Rafa with La Coupe des Mousquetaires, watched it all, like the rest of us, almost awe-struck. “Words can’t express what we feel for Rafa’s game and what he’s done for the game on a worldwide basis,” the Australian said.
Thiem hailed his conqueror as “one of the most awesome athletes ever in the sport” and Nadal told him: “You are a great player, just keep going, I’m sure you’ll win here.”
Not while Nadal is still around, though, you suspect. The Spaniard took that same old ruthless initiative from the start when he allowed Thiem just one of the first nine points and, for just a fleeting moment, one feared that stage-fright might be taking an immediate grip on the Austrian until he whipped a superlative cross-court winner to announce that he was here to play and immediately broke back.
Yet, throughout that competitive first set, he was the one largely on the back foot with Nadal, even with his timing slightly off, rocking the big hitter on to the back foot around by the court tarpaulin, taking his ballistic missiles out of play and earning break points in each game.
The super-fit Thiem, who’s done plenty of training in the Alps, was already like a mountaineer clinging on to the Eiger by his fingertips. The slenderest hold had to give and it did in the 10th game. Horribly. Serving to stay in the set, he played the most wretched game, plonking a volley into the net followed by three wayward forehands to gift the stanza to Nadal after what had otherwise been an engrossing, competitive 57 minutes.
In effect, it was the end already for Thiem. Immediately broken in the second set, he hung in there but at 4-2 down and forging back strongly to earn a break point, he discovered Nadal’s true greatness. He’d just won his break point with his delicious drop shot - but Nadal responded dazzlingly with two of his own to rescue his delivery.
From there, in the oppressive, humid conditions it seemed as if Rafa’s only worry was to beat his injury. “It was a cramping on the finger but not a normal cramping. Probably because I had the bandage here, it created pressure that probably didn’t allow the right circulation,” he explained.
“For me it was scary, because I felt that I was not able to move the hand, the finger. I was not under control.”
So, he had the wrapping around his forearm cut and the freedom allowed him to finish the job efficiently. There even seemed a force field around him that allowed him beat the rain that started to pour down later.
He remains in a world of his own in Chatrier and may continue for some time yet. “You can always improve something, I think that everyone can improve,” he warned. “There is no limit. You never know where is the limit.”
Thiem and all the other hunters have been warned.