“Dread it. Run From it. Destiny still arrives.”
If you are both a Marvel fan and a tennis fan like I am, indulge me in this line of thought. Which was more inevitable? That Thanos would snap his gauntlet wielding fingers at the end of Infinity Wars, or that Nadal would grab his 11th title at Roland Garros today? As I watched the championship match play out, that sense of inevitability only got stronger with each rally. There was a pungent feeling of foreboding for Thiem, even as he played his best stretch of tennis to break Nadal back in the first set, and continued going toe to toe with him.
The gas tank was full but the gas was emptying out quickly.
Thiem was playing with all of the strengths that have allowed him hold the prestigious title of the only man to defeat Nadal the past two years on clay. He was also playing with all the weaknesses of the archetypal player Nadal wolfs down for lunch on the final Sunday of Roland Garros. The talented single-handed backhand player. Let’s put those weaknesses aside for a moment. Thiem was also facing an uphill task. To stand toe to toe with Nadal, he was redlining his game. His serves were consistently clocking the 130+ mph range. He was swinging from the hips on both forehand and backhand side, trying to hit through Nadal. He was scampering across the court to retrieve Nadal’s own, unpredictable bullets, and he was barely holding on to his service games.
The gas was being guzzled.
Suddenly, at 4 – 5 in the first set, much like with Del Potro, on Friday’s semifinal match, Thiem snapped. It started subtly, with a bad miss at the net, while he was looking to carve an angled backhand volley. The build up to the finish had been perfect, but somehow, that finishing shot had proven to be one too many. The diabolical nature of Nadal’s game lies in how he slowly wears his opponents, mentally, physically and perhaps spiritually or is it existentially, as a tennis player. The racket becomes heavy in their hands and soon they are wearing that faraway look of shock and despair that precedes their ultimate demise on the dirt.
How much was Thiem feeling the pressure? He couldn’t find a first serve to save him during times of trouble. We’ll credit Thiem for never mentally checking out of this match, but it was clear he was mentally beaten even as he fought. Physically, Nadal was ripping him to shreds with each passing rally. Thiem is too talented a player not to have his own breathtaking moments and he did. However, he couldn’t put enough high level points together to build any sort of momentum in the match. He was thoroughly being outplayed and not being able to build his points on his first serve, hurt him today. Nadal appeared to tease him with the pain of the rallies – even after going through some wrist cramps in the third set. He would raise his level just out of reach of Thiem’s. The Austrian fought, trying in futility to catch up to Nadal, or bring the Spaniard down. In the final game of the match, Thiem battled valiantly, saving four match points in the process. This was no longer a fight for the title. It was a fight for Thiem’s survival and the Austrian was going down swinging.
However, destiny still arrives.
And so it was that on the fifth match point, Thiem’s fight finally went out of him. Nadal did not collapse to the dirt this time. This was no routine straight sets victory. He had been tested a bit by Thiem, but not enough to collapse in relief. Instead, he raised his arms to the sky and smiled satisfactorily in victory. Undecima is now his. He extends his mind numbing record at Roland Garros and rewrites his own personal accomplishments with this victory. He is now the only individual to win three different tournaments eleven times and has won his 17th grand slam title, pulling him to three within Federer.
I’ll end this with a little fun observation. Both Federer and Nadal have now combined to win the all slams played since the beginning of last year, dating back to the 2017 Australian Open. They have each won three slams. If Federer had not won any slams, in that time, Rafael Nadal would have 18 slams and Federer would have 17.
And so the race continues.