PARIS – The applause kept coming for Rafael Nadal, on the occasion of his unthinkable 11th French Open title Sunday.
It came in waves. And it wouldn’t stop.
The man himself stood on the court he has made his own. And he didn’t know what else to do but nod, and wave, and smile.
And then the tears came.
“For me, I don’t have words to describe the motions I felt at that moment. Something exceptional for me to find myself on that court,” Nadal said later, in one of his endless television interviews. “Nowhere else do I feel this.”
The accolades and the banners held aloft in the crowd and the commemorative merchandise came with the 10th title a year ago – La Décima.
But perhaps the love of the French partisans finally came with this one – La Undécima.
The Austrian Dominic Thiem was vanquished, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2. And as he put it, winning at Roland Garros 11 times is one of the most outstanding things that has ever been achieved in sport.
And yet, if Nadal had conquered the tournament, he had never quite conquered the French.
The French stingy with the love
It has always been somewhat surprising, because the Mallorcan has been unwavering in his devotion to the city, its fans, the tournament and everyone associated with it.
“Since the first time that I came here until today is a love story with this event, not only with the victories, but this is all about the people who is working the event, too. I feel very close to all of them,” Nadal said in his press conference later in the evening.
With the passing of time, he even has spoken more and more in la langue de Molière in post-match interviews.
Perhaps it was because he kept winning it, taking much of the suspense out of the fortnight.
Perhaps Paris is more Roger Federer territory, a place reluctant to embrace a kid from a small town on a small Spanish island.
We certainly know they prefer their tennis more … artistic? Although art is in the eye of the beholder.
Nadal won’t have forgotten the emotions he felt back in 2009, when Robin Soderling defeated him and the crowd was firmly on the Swede’s side.
“They say it themselves and it’s true, the Parisian crowd is pretty stupid. I think the French don’t like it when a Spaniard wins,” Nadal’s uncle and former coach Toni Nadal said at the time. “Wanting someone to lose is a slightly conceited way of amusing yourself. They show the stupidity of people who think themselves superior.”
Nadal has never actively sought their love, but he has unequivocally deserved it.
On Sunday, he felt it – maybe really and truly for the first time.
Perhaps that’s why he hugged the Coupe des Mousquetaires a little more tightly this time, as if he never wanted to let it go.
He did say later that the emotions weren’t necessarily stronger than they were a year ago.
“Last year was very, very important. It had been awhile I hadn’t been winning when I got here last year,” Nadal said. “I feel like each year, it’s tougher to win it. Because the years are passing. I’m 32 now.”
Suspense – but not about the outcome
This was the first time Nadal had met a much-younger opponent in the French Open final.
And Thiem was a worthy foil, arguably the second-best clay-court player on the planet. It’s clear Nadal sees him as his successor, and considers him a good friend as well.
So there was a different dynamic to the quest for undécima, a faint hope for a changing of the guard – or at the very least, a compelling final.
Thiem, after all, had beaten Nadal three of the seven times they had played somewhere other than Paris.
But in Paris, in two attempts, he had failed to win a set.
In this third attempt, Thiem also failed to win a set.
Lucky with the weather
The biggest suspense on the day concerned whether the weather would cooperate. Rain and a thunderstorm were nearly guaranteed to hit the 16th arrondissement somewhere in the late afternoon or evening.
For nearly three weeks, through the qualifying and the main draw, this had been a possibility. But somehow, with only a couple of exceptions, the showers circumnavigated Roland Garros and allowed the tournament to proceed more or less on schedule.
Not 45 minutes after all the festivities were concluded, the wind picked up. And the thunder bellowed. And then the rain fell.
A worrisome moment
As Nadal was serving up a break in the third set at 2-1, at 30-love on his serve, he suddenly bolted to his chair after missing his first serve.
He was grabbing the middle finger on his left hand. And he looked really concerned.
The doctor and trainer immediately came out, as Nadal ripped off the tight wrap around his wrist that he said was to keep the sweat away from his racket hand. (He had it on the right wrist as well).
He stretched out the finger. And the physio massaged his forearm arm, up past the wrist, to get some blood flowing back into the finger.
Nadal finally returned to the service line for his second serve – and double-faulted.
But if the finger bothered him, it didn’t show.
Thiem didn’t win another game.
“Sort of a cramp”
“I had sort of cramp in the finger, and I couldn’t move it, and I was worried. I told myself I could have wasted all that energy if I couldn’t continue,” Nadal said to FranceTV. “The finger wouldn’t move. I couldn’t hold the racquet. So of course I was worried.”
Until then – and even after that – Nadal was in pure beast mode.
As much time as Nadal was taking between points, Thiem probably wasn’t objecting. So many of the points ended up with the Austrian fighting for oxygen.
If the point was short, Thiem was there with Nadal. If the point was very long, he stood his ground. But on the points between four and nine shots, Nadal was the master.
The Austrian hit the ball as hard as he possibly could. But it still came back. And the moment he didn’t, Nadal finished it off.
“I did the best that I could, but there’s a reason why Rafa won here 11 times. He’s obviously the toughest challenge in tennis, and he showed it once again. I didn’t play that bad. I was fighting for every ball, but he was just too good. So I have to accept it,” Thiem said.
“To me, it’s still been two great weeks. I still remember when you won here for the first time in 2005 I was 11 years old, watching on the TV. And honestly I never expected one day that I would play the finals here, so I’m really happy,” he said to Nadal during the trophy ceremony.
“I lost the final in the in the juniors seven years ago, and I lost the final today, I hope I will have another chance, maybe against you, that would be a dream.”