They made 2019 (V): The day Rafa won his 12th Roland-Garros crown

 - Danielle Rossingh

EPISODE 5/10. In 10 days, 10 players and 10 stories, here are the tales of a fascinating year.

Rafael Nadal eyes closed with his Roland-Garros 2019 trophy©Nicolas Gouhier/FFT

EPISODE 5/10. Down and seemingly out in the early spring, Rafael Nadal defied the odds to capture a 12th title on the Parisian clay.

A month before Roland-Garros, Rafael Nadal was in crisis.

Having scraped past Leonardo Mayer of Argentina in the first round of the Barcelona Open in a match that lasted almost three hours and took three sets, the Spaniard hit rock bottom.

After an injury-filled 2018, Nadal continued to struggle with his health, and having carried a knee injury into the clay-court swing, he was even wondering if he should end his season right then and there. 

At that stage, a record-extending 12th Roland-Garros title seemed unlikely, even for a man who has dominated the tournament ever since he won it in 2005 at the age of 19 in Capri trousers and long, flowing locks of dark-brown hair.

Rafael Nadal posing in the locker after the 2019 Roland-Garros final©Nicolas Gouhier/FFT

“I didn’t even know I would be here“

But doubt Nadal at your own peril: six weeks later, he defeated Dominic Thiem of Austria in a grueling 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 battle to prove yet again why he is one of the all-time greats.

“It is truly incredible, I cannot explain it,” Nadal told the crowd at the Court Philippe-Chatrier after Thiem hit a forehand return long on match point.

“For me, it was a dream to play here for the first time in 2005...It is very special for me,” said the Spaniard after becoming the first player in history to win 12 singles titles at any of the four Grand Slam tournaments.

“I have had a very difficult year with a lot of physical problems,” said Nadal. “One month ago I didn’t even know I would be here. For me, the simple fact of having tried, having trained well in the last weeks to come back, is my biggest satisfaction.”

Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem holding after match point at 2019 Roland-Garros©Jean-Charles Castlot/FFT

Thiem threw the kitchen sink at Nadal

Carlos Moya, Nadal’s coach and a former Roland-Garros winner himself, was full of praise for the 33-year-old from the Spanish island of Mallorca.

“Hats off to what he’s done this month and a half, because it’s easy to play well when things are working well, but what he’s been through these last couple of months is showing what a competitor he is and that mentally he is a genius,” Moya said after the final.

Although Thiem, playing in his second straight final in Paris, threw the kitchen sink at Nadal, the Austrian was unable to outlast the ‘King of Clay’ in a physical match that featured 46 baseline rallies lasting 10 shots or more.

"I played very good the first two sets, and then I had a little drop, which is against most of the players not that bad, but he took the chance and stepped right on me," said the Austrian, who had beaten Nadal in the semi-finals in Barcelona in straight sets.

Rafael Nadal during practice at the 2019 US Open©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Stellar season

From there, Nadal never looked back.

He went on to reach the semi-final at Wimbledon, where he was stopped only by Roger Federer, before clinching his fourth US Open crown in September. After a brief break to marry his long-time girlfriend, Maria Francisca Perello, in Mallorca in October, Nadal finished the regular season as the world No. 1 for the fifth time, before leading Spain to their sixth Davis Cup title in November in Madrid.

After his stellar season, Nadal finds himself just one Grand Slam title short of Switzerland’s Federer, the Open era men’s record holder with 20, while he is three ahead of Novak Djokovic of Serbia.

Rafael Nadal not believing he just won the 2019 US Open©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

“I play to be happy“

Although winning major titles is a huge motivation for Nadal, it isn’t the only reason he is still competing well into his 30s.

“I would love to be the one who win more, but I am not thinking and I (am) not going to practice every day or not playing tennis for it,” Nadal told reporters in New York, after beating Russia’s Daniil Medvedev in five sets for his 19th Grand Slam crown. 

“I am playing tennis because I love to play tennis,” he added. “I can't just think about Grand Slams, no? Tennis is more than Grand Slams. I need to think about the rest of the things. I play to be happy.”