Rafael Nadal Extends his Reign with an 11th French Open Title

Though it seems the right thing to do at this stage, there is no plan to retire the Coupe des Mousquetaires, the trophy that goes to the winner of the men’s singles title at the French Open.

Rafael Nadal has all but taken permanent possession of it, hoisting it high and biting down on its handle for the 11th time after defeating Dominic Thiem, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2, in the final on Sunday.

But the French are, in a sense, retiring the historic stadium in which Nadal has established his historic dominance.

Almost immediately after Thiem’s last return had flown long, the attendants in the tournament’s longstanding press room inside the Philippe Chatrier Court were distributing hard hats and colored markers to reporters and others for their demolition party. Much of the Chatrier Court, the main showplace at Roland Garros, will be demolished and rebuilt in the next 10 months to prepare for the installation of a retractable roof by 2020.

It will be a new era at the world’s greatest clay-court tournament, but given how Nadal demolished a worthy opponent from the next generation on Sunday, it would be no surprise if he managed to bridge the eras.

At age 32, he was in vintage form against Thiem, a 24-year-old Austrian who had beaten Nadal three times on clay — but never in a best-of-five-set match. Nadal, who had some shaky opening starts this year at Roland Garros, was well aware of the threat, and he was focused and ferocious from the first point.

“If you tell me, seven, eight years ago, that I will be here with 32 years old having this trophy with me again, I will tell you that it is something almost impossible,” Nadal said afterward. “But here we are.”

Players have approached his level of achievement on other surfaces: Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Martina Navratilova on grass. But there has been no one like him on clay in any era.

Nadal was a prodigy who has remained prodigious. While he has won six of his 17 Grand Slam singles titles on other surfaces, he is to clay what Michael Phelps is to water.

Like Phelps, his physique and technique are perfectly adapted to this environment: No one moves on terre battue like Nadal, and no one’s topspin forehand kicks like Nadal’s, not even Thiem’s, which is quite a versatile weapon on its own.

Like Phelps, Nadal has an enduring drive to excel even after having won all there is to win, many times over. Eleven was the number this year as he won his 11th career title in Monte Carlo, in Barcelona and in Paris.

Most would be jaded by now. But Nadal still plays tennis on clay with the match-by-match hunger of someone who has not won so much as a Challenger event, and though he is rightly famous for relishing the struggle as much as the victory, there is also an element of protecting his turf at this stage.

The rallies on Sunday were routinely physical and often extended, full of topspin and corner-to-corner action and punctuated by loud grunts that were every bit as clamorous as any in the women’s game (even if the grunting issue only seems to be a talking point in the women’s side).

But though Thiem regularly took huge risks to try to push Nadal outside of his comfort zone, he was also pushing beyond his own: He finished with 42 unforced errors to go with his 34 winners. Before the final, Thiem said he had a plan, and he stayed closer to the baseline than usual to return and to rally, trying to deprive Nadal of time.

Nadal was outraged and filed — and won — a defamation suit against Bachelot last year.

But the Franco-Nadal relationship seems to have arrived at a new and more convivial place. If he seemed the slightest bit blasé, it might be a different matter. Yet there he still was on a Sunday in the Paris spring, chasing every ball, groaning with nearly every stroke and whipping winners when he needed them most against a rival eight years his junior.

They can demolish the stadium, but his records here will likely stand until they demolish the next one.

Related Articles