June 10, 2018
Rafael Nadal has won the French Open so many times that at first he hardly seemed to feel the elation.
When Dominic Thiem finally crumbled and hit long on the fifth match point, Rafa dropped his racquet, turned to the crowd behind the baseline and raised his arms.
But there was no collapsing into the Chatrier clay that has become his spiritual home after this 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 victory.
And the tears didn’t come until later, when the enormity of his achievement belatedly sank in.
By then Nadal had already done his courtside interview and admitted that he had a year, or two at best, playing at the height of his powers, or something approaching that extraordinary level.
To his friend Dominic Thiem, Rafa said: ‘I’m sure you will win here in the next year or two.’
What did that mean? Could this be Rafa’s last year? Or will that be next year?
Either way, it doesn’t sound as though Nadal, 32, thinks he can play as long as Roger Federer has.
And you could understand why Rafa doubted his longevity as an elite player after yesterday.
As he explained: ‘It was a tough moment in the third set when I had cramp in the hand, I was very scared.’
And even in the closing stages, when he needed more massage to stop himself from seizing up, you wondered for a moment whether Rafa still had enough in the tank to get over the line, should Thiem suddenly find momentun.
After all, the Austrian saved three match points to go from 40-0 down to deuce. Then he saved one more.
What would have happened if he had been able to win that game, and then another, and drag Nadal into further physical discomfort?
We’ll never know, because Thiem lost patience and hit carelessly at key points in these final rallies, when it was clearly in his interest to prolong the war of attrition.
That’s the thing about Rafa. His legend goes before him and some opponents are beaten almost before they start.
‘I watched you win your first one in 2005 when I was 11 years old and I never thought I’d be playing a final against you here,’ said Thiem, sounding star struck. ‘To beat you here one day would be a dream.’
Rafa clearly feels he will be there for the taking sooner rather than later. But will he continue if that’s the case?
As he pointed out: ‘To win here eleven times isn’t even a dream because it’s impossible to think you could win so many times.’
Therefore Rafa has already surpassed his own expectations and then some. He has made $100 million in prize money alone, but money ceased to matter some time ago.
Can he catch Roger Federer’s Slam-count? It’s not impossible. Nadal has 17, three behind Federer’s 20.
One thing is for sure. We should savour Nadal while he is still playing and winning massive tournaments.
Enjoy him at Wimbledon 2018. We can’t feel confident that, after this year, he will play the greatest tournament of them all too many more times.