It was clay-court tennis as usual at Roland Garros on Sunday, as Rafael Nadal won his 11th French Open singles title.
No other man has come close to double digits in Paris championships, and Nadal won this year by defeating the only person who has beaten him on clay since 2016: Dominic Thiem, a 24-year-old Austrian with extravagant groundstrokes and power in abundance.
Nadal’s 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 victory at age 32 was a tribute to his enduring excellence and drive, and to his continuing ability to bounce back.
He struggled with injuries at the end of his otherwise triumphant 2017 season and again early this season, hobbling during his Australian Open quarterfinal against Marin Cilic before retiring in the fifth set with a strained muscle in his upper right leg.
Nadal later withdrew from tournaments in Acapulco, Mexico; Indian Wells, Calif.; and Miami before returning to competition in April with two victories on clay for Spain in the Davis Cup.
He has played on nothing but clay since and continued to be the dominant force on the game’s grittiest and slowest surface. Nadal has won six major titles on grass and hardcourts, but clay is his natural element, like water for Michael Phelps or snow for Marcel Hirscher.
Along the way to dominance, Nadal has helped improve every tennis fan’s Spanish. This latest title was his “undécima” (the 11th); he also won his 11th singles titles on the red clay of Monte Carlo and Barcelona this season.
“It would be even more arrogant for me to think that all this is normal,” said Nadal, who also won his eighth Italian Open title in Rome. “I have to appreciate what’s happening to me. Three months ago, things were different.”
Nadal, with his slashing baseline style, has often had to deal with injuries, including a foot problem that threatened his career in his teens.
A long run at the top seemed unlikely then, but he takes great satisfaction in enduring. Sunday’s victory guaranteed that he will remain No. 1 in the rankings.
Nadal has won 17 Grand Slam singles titles, three short of Roger Federer, the tennis yin to his yang, who has won a record 20. Federer, who skipped the clay-court season, plans to play Wimbledon next month to chase No. 21.
Sunday marked the first time Nadal had faced a player from a younger tennis generation in a Grand Slam final. Nadal, Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray — the so-called Big Four — have dominated the men’s game to such a degree that Thiem is only the second player currently younger than 28 to have reached a major singles final. Milos Raonic, now 27, lost to Murray in the 2016 Wimbledon final.
In contrast, there are eight women currently younger than 28 who have been Grand Slam singles finalists.
Change is coming in the men’s game: Alexander Zverev is 21 and ranked No. 3 after winning the Masters 1000 title in Madrid and pushing Nadal hard in the Italian Open final. At 6-foot-6, Zverev has an intimidating blend of power and quickness, along with a two-handed backhand that is among the most effective weapons in the game.
The generational shift has begun, just very slowly.
“Yes, and it’s going to take probably one or two more years,” said Gunter Bresnik, Thiem’s coach.
Thiem was certainly a strong candidate to threaten the pecking order at Roland Garros. He had beaten Nadal three times on clay in the past three seasons, most recently in the quarterfinals in Madrid this year after losing to Nadal in a hurry in Monte Carlo.
But Thiem could not join Djokovic and Robin Soderling as the only players to defeat Nadal at the French Open. Nadal’s record is now 86-2 at Roland Garros, and he became only the second person to win 11 singles titles at the same major, joining Margaret Court, who won 11 Australian championships during the amateur and professional eras.
This was also Nadal’s first major title with Carlos Moya as his primary coach. Like Nadal, Moya comes from the Spanish island of Majorca; he won the French Open in 1998 and later became the first Spanish man to reach No. 1.
Nadal, who was long coached by his uncle Toni Nadal, grew up with Moya as a very accessible role model. They trained together and later won the Davis Cup for Spain in 2004. Now, with his uncle having stepped aside this season and Moya taking on the main coaching role, they can celebrate the “undécima” together.