By Martyn Herman
PARIS (Reuters) – Playing the King of Clay at the French Open is akin to scaling Mont Blanc without ropes and even an intrepid adventurer from Europe’s Alpine heartland found it a peak too steep as Rafael Nadal stormed to 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 relentless Spaniard proved insurmountable, winning 6-4 6-3 6-2.
In claiming a 17th Grand Slam title to move three short of Roger Federer’s mark, Nadal also matched Margaret Court’s record of 11 titles at a single major — hers all coming at the Australian Open in the 1960s and 70s.
After winning 26 of his 27 matches throughout the European claycourt season and 81 of his last 86 sets on clay there is nothing to suggest Nadal’s domination in Paris will end 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.
“For me was scary, because I felt that I was not able to move the hand, the finger,” Nadal said.
He also let four match points go at 5-2 but he would not be denied as Thiem went long with a backhand on the fifth.
Nadal threw his arms skywards and turned to his entourage including coach and fellow Mallorcan Carlos Moya and his uncle Toni who stood down from his coaching role last year after his nephew worn his 10th French crown.
The tears that welled up when Nadal received the Coupe des Mousquetaires from Australian great Ken Rosewall showed just how much he still cares.
“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 it’s impossible to think of something like this.”
Thiem was trying to become only the second Austrian Grand Slam champion after Tomas Muster’s 1995 Paris triumph and played his part in the two hour 42 minute tussle but was unable to sustain the high-octane tennis needed to unnerve 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.
An edgy Thiem won only one of the first eight points as Nadal, cheered to the rafters when he walked on court, bristled with intent.
But the Austrian freed his shoulders 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 as he framed 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 was rampant when he broke early in the second but Thiem raised his game to force a break point when Nadal served at 4-2 — a game in which the Spaniard was warned for slow play.
Nadal, however, averted danger with a pass after dragging Thiem in with a deft drop-shot.
Once he moved two sets ahead it merely became a race against time for Nadal to finish the match off before the rain arrived.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Ed Osmond)