Rafael Nadal was not as good on clay in 2018 as he was in 2017.

In 2017, he had won his tenth title at Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Roland Garros, as well as the Madrid Masters. In fact, he lost only one match, to Dominic Thiem at Rome.

In 2018, he won his 11th title at Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Roland Garros, as well as the Rome Masters, but dropped a total of three sets. He lost only one match, to Dominic Thiem at Madrid.

The score line of the 2017 French Open quarters, semi and final read: walkover win Pablo Carreno Busta, beat Thiem 6-3, 6-4, 6-0, beat Stan Wawrinka 6-2, 6-3, 6-1

The score line of the 2018 French Open quarters, semi and final read: beat Diego Schwartzman 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2, beat Juan Martin del Potro 6-4, 6-1, 6-2, beat Thiem 6-4, 6-3, 6-2.

In 2017, he played the North American hard-court swing in February and March. In 2018, he hadn’t played a match since retiring from his Australian Open quarter-final against Marin Cilic.

Bottom-line: By the standards he set in 2017, Nadal wasn’t as good on clay this year.

And yet, Nadal conquered Undecima – his 11 French Open title on Sunday, with a straight sets win over the only player who could potentially challenge him on clay.

The final score read a little better than Wawrinka’s demolition last year, but the effect was the same despite the Austrian seventh seed fighting with everything he had. He threw good balls and the kitchen sink at Nadal. But the world No 1 parried them all, and would have actually volleyed and won the point, even if a sink was thrown at him.

For such is the force of nature when Nadal plays on clay. He defended all his points from last year’s phenomenal clay season and created new records - First man to win 11th title at the same Slam and third player to reach $100 million in prize money after Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.

And this irresistible force is multiplied when he plays on terre battue. No science can explain it but perhaps math can: 86 wins and only two losses. 11 titles in 14 years, with an injury withdrawal. No one else has won the event more than once since he won it as a debutant in 2005. Only three other people have even won it, and only one of them – Novak Djokovic – has actually beaten him there. (Although he lost the year he beat Nadal)

Graphic by Anand Katakam.
Graphic by Anand Katakam.

At this point, Nadal is competing with himself at the French Open. He is both the irresistible force and immovable object. The other 127 competitors are fighting for a place in the final and the chance to lose to the best on the surface. That is a different kind of pressure altogether.

He has won the Grand Slam as a teen, in his 20s and now twice in his 30s. His dominance has coincided with the peak of two of the greatest players the sport has seen. Yet Roger Federer’s peak and Djokovic’s monster season in 2011 could not stop Nadal.

Nadal is like some glitch in a video game that you can’t solve or the Kobayashi Maru. Every time you come across him on Roland Garros, you have to die. And beating Nadal in French Open finals is like living on Mars: it is theoretically possible, but humankind just does not possess the tools or skills yet.

Not so smooth sailing

This French Open, we have actually seen Nadal struggle at times.

In the very first round, he was troubled by lucky loser Simone Bolelli who went 0-3 up in the third set, after dropping the first two and forced the Spaniard to save four break points in the eighth game before saving four set points. He eventually clinched the rain-interrupted match 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (11-9), not the kind of start we have seen him enjoy.

Last year, the most games anyone won against him was eight – Robin Haase in the second round. This year, that record was already gone. He needed another tiebreak against Maximilian Marterer, and actually dropped a set in the rain-troubled quarters.

In the final, he played the one challenger he could have had on clay. Tennis fans anticipated a contest, which against Nadal would mean not a straight-sets win. Thiem was not the only one to have beaten him on clay, he had done it twice in two years. He had then got the better of Alexander Zverev, the other player who could potentially trouble Nadal as he did in the final at Rome.

Thiem tried but had no Plan B

And the Austrian did show some spark, after Nadal went 2-0 up winning eight out of the first nine points, by getting a break back and attacking Nadal’s backhand. That he had to pull out all stops to hold the fourth game, is another story. He tried everything – an ace, a 222 kph serve, a wicked wide shot – but it only showed the chinks in his own game as he committed a double fault and fell prey to a flat Nadal backhand. The next hold for him was even tougher, as an umpire line call meant he had to serve again after thinking he had held, and the game then went on for 11 minutes and he had to save break points, again.

But this was the most competitive set, as Thiem rushed to the net, altered his return position, played smart from the middle of the court, volleyed and even got Nadal’s applause. But serving to stay in the set, Thiem made the fatal mistake of dropping his intensity a little and losing energy – understandable after the grueling holds – and Nadal pounced on the error-strewn display to break and clinch the set.

The second set saw another early break as Thiem continued to struggle with his first serve and Nadal used his topspin forehand to force more errors and go 2-0 up. The Austrian seventh seed then began to take the ball early and started getting into rallies, but a cool and collected Nadal didn’t drop his serve and served out the set. Numbers will show that the younger man had more winners and a better first serve in the second set, but it just wasn’t enough.

Nadal got the early break in the third as well, after Thiem saved four break points in the very first game. By now the 24-year-old was blindly punching and grinding to stay afloat, but it was already too late. The tactic that Bollelli, Schwartzman and he himself had used to trouble Nadal before – attack till you can’t anymore – didn’t work out and Thiem had no Plan B.

Even injury couldn’t stop Nadal. He took a medical time out at 30-0 up in the third set but returned to not only win the point rushing to net, but held for 3-2 with a cramping hand and nine fingers. Even after a trainer break at changeover, Thiem couldn’t stretch Nadal and it was soon over despite the Austrian saving three championship points.

Nadal gave a very interesting quote about how he still feels the pressure of winning on the Parisian clay – because he is a “human person.” It is hard to believe he is only human when he plays like that. But he still celebrates every win with the same fervor – the lawnmower when he reached the final, the pumped up arms when he won the title, the spontaneous bursting into tears when he held the trophy.

Nadal is someone who bites trophies, not cry with them. But it showed what No 11 meant and why it mattered so much even though he had 10 before. Nadal wasn’t as good on clay in 2018, but he was still better than everyone else and battled through the rare moments when he wasn’t.

Corrections:-

  • An earlier version of this article mistakenly mentions thatIn 2017, [Nadal] had won his tenth title at Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Roland Garros, as well as the Madrid Masters, without dropping a set.” Nadal had dropped a set each against Kyle Edmund in the second round of the Monte Carlo Masters 2017 and against Fabio Fognini in the second round of 2017 Madrid Masters.