PARIS (Reuters) ― Playing the king of clay at the French Open is akin to scaling Mont Blanc without any ropes and even an intrepid adventurer from Europe’s Alpine heartland found it a peak too steep as Rafael Nadal claimed an 11th title on Sunday.
Austria’s Dominic Thiem strained every sinew trying to cling on to the 32-year-old Spaniard and at times even gained a precarious foothold in his first Grand Slam final.
But it ultimately proved a futile mission as, just like in all but two of Nadal’s previous 87 matches here, the incredible Spaniard proved invincible, winning 6-4 6-3 6-2.
In claiming a 17th Grand Slam title, Nadal matched Margaret Court’s record of titles at a single major ― hers all coming at the Australian Open. There is nothing to suggest Nadal’s domination on the Parisian dirt will end any time soon.
Seventh seed Thiem arrived on a sultry Court Philippe Chatrier with three career wins over Nadal, all on clay, and in an absorbing first set lasting an hour showed why ― going toe-to-toe in some ferocious rallies.
But from the moment Nadal broke serve in the 10th game to win the opening set Thiem’s belief ebbed away.
There was late anxiety for Nadal as the predicted thunderstorms loomed and he needed his left forearm massaged after beginning to suffer from cramp.
He also let four match points go at 5-2 but he would not be denied as Thiem went long with a backhand.
Nadal’s celebration was restrained ― throwing his arms skywards and turning to his entourage including coach and fellow Mallorcan Carlos Moya and his uncle Toni who stood down last year when his nephew Nadal reached La Decima.
There was no disguising what it still means to him, though, as the tears welled up after being handed the Coupe des Mousquetaires from former great Ken Rosewall.
“It’s amazing now, I can’t describe my feelings,” a sweat-soaked Nadal told the crowd.
“It’s not even a dream to win here 11 times, because its impossible to think of something like this.”
Thiem, who was trying to become only the second Austrian Grand Slam champion after Tomas Muster’s 1995 Paris triumph, played his part in the two hour 42 minute tussle but was unable to sustain the high-octane tennis needed to ruffle Nadal.
“What you did and what you are doing is the most outstanding thing an athlete can achieve in sport,” the 24-year-old said.
“Congratulations. It is amazing. Bravo. To me it’s been still great two weeks.”
Understandably, Thiem looked edgy as the match begun and he managed to win only one of the first eight points as Nadal, cheered loudly when he walked on court, bristled with intent.
But he shook off the early nerves and broke back in the third game with forehand winner ― pumping his fists in the direction of coach Gunter Bresnik.
Thiem, mixing heavy top-spin and flat groundstrokes and angling balls across the sidelines, saved a break point at 1-2 and two more at 2-3 and there were signs that Nadal was struggling with his timing - over-cooking several forehands.
At 4-4 Nadal hit a second serve that bounced before it reached the net but he shrugged that off to hold.
Thiem undid all his good work in the next game, netting an easy volley on the first point and gifting Nadal three more unforced errors to hand over the first set.
Nadal had never lost in the 112 best-of-five-set matches in which he had won the opening set and Thiem dropped serve early in the second with another over-cooked backhand.
There was still fight in Thiem, though, and he had a break point when Nadal served at 4-2 ― a game in which the Spaniard was warned for taking too long to serve.
But Nadal held with some clever drop shots and after taking the second set it merely became a race against time to finish off Thiem before the rain arrived.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Ed Osmond)