PARIS — For a few, fleeting moments Sunday, Rafael Nadal found his French Open supremacy seemingly threatened by Dominic Thiem, a younger, talented opponent challenging him in the final for the second consecutive year.
A poor game from Nadal allowed Thiem to break him and even things at a set apiece. That development brought fans to their feet in Court Philippe Chatrier, roaring and clapping and, above all, wondering: Was this, now, a real contest? Could Thiem push Nadal more? Could he make this surge last? Would Nadal falter?
That the questions arose at all was significant. The answers arrived swiftly. Nadal reasserted himself, as he usually does at Roland Garros, by grabbing 16 of the next 17 points and 12 of the remaining 14 games, pulling away to beat Thiem 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 for his record-extending 12th championship at the French Open.
“He stepped on me,” Thiem said. “The numbers are crazy. He won it 12 times.”
No one in tennis ever has won any major tournament that frequently. Then again, no one ever has been as suited for success on any of the sport’s surfaces as this 33-year-old Spaniard is on red clay: Nadal is 93-2 for his career at Roland Garros, winning four in a row from 2005-08, five in a row from 2010-14, and now three in a row.
“I can’t explain my emotions,” said the No. 2-seeded Nadal, who dropped to his back after the final point, getting that rust-colored dirt all over his neon yellow shirt, then wiped away tears during the trophy ceremony.
Looking at the bigger picture, he is now up to 18 Grand Slam trophies, moving within two of Roger Federer’s men’s record of 20.
Thiem, a 25-year-old Austrian who was seeded No. 4 and upset No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the semifinals, was eyeing his first major title in this rematch of the 2018 final in Paris. But again, he couldn’t solve Nadal.
“First thing that I want to say is congrats to Dominic. I feel sorry, because he deserves it here, too,” Nadal said. “He has an unbelievable intensity.”
So, of course, does Nadal. This had been, by his lofty standards, a rough season, from the most lopsided Grand Slam final loss of his career — against Djokovic at the Australian Open — to entering May without a title for the first year since 2004.
He started to right himself by taking the Italian Open title on clay last month.
“It was very important for him to win in Rome. It was like he realized that he was getting back on the good level, on the right path,” said Nadal’s coach, 1998 French Open champion Carlos Moya, “and gaining a lot of confidence.”
Soon enough, Nadal found himself in a familiar position in Paris: playing in the final, and winning it.
This one began on a cloudy afternoon, with the temperature in the low 60s and only a slight breeze. In the initial game, three of the five points lasted at least 11 strokes.
And, thereby, a pattern was established: By the end of the 3-hour, 1-minute match, a total of 46 points went 10 strokes or more. Each man claimed half.
Both would station themselves along the baseline and sprint, scramble, slide, stretch to somehow reach just about every ball, not merely putting a racket on it but conjuring a booming reply. It was an impressive display of athleticism, skill and will, with Thiem managing to give just as good as he got, particularly with his ferocious backhand.
“Almost everybody will tell you that he’s one of the best volleyers of our game,” Thiem said. “Because the last time he missed a volley was, maybe, seven years ago, I guess.”
Soon enough, it was over. The King of Clay, as Nadal is known, still reigns.