No End in Sight to Rafael Nadal's Unrivaled Dominance After 11th French Open Win

Greg CouchNational ColumnistJune 10, 2018

Spain's Rafael Nadal celebrates winning the men's final match of the French Open tennis tournament against Austria's Dominic Thiem in three sets 6-4, 6-3, 6-2, at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, France, Sunday, June 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
Michel Euler/Associated Press

You run out of ways to say "wow," but Rafael Nadal keeps finding ways to make this fresh and make his energy and electricity felt by anyone playing him, much less watching him, on the red clay courts at Roland Garros.

Nadal won his 11th French Open on Sunday, beating Dominic Thiem 6-4, 6-3, 6-2. Eleven French Opens. Wow. Or maybe wow, wow, wow, 11 times over. Tennis careers rarely last 11 years, and no one wins the same major title 11 times. No one ever has until now. And next year, we'll be pointing out that no one had won 12. And the year after that? How many years will we keep pointing out the same thing?

Have you been paying attention? Nadal on clay might be the most amazing thing we've ever seen in sports. Not just tennis, where that isn't even up for debate. In any sport.

Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps might have something to say about that. That's fair. But their Olympics came once every four years. Nadal has had to do this year after year after year. He has lost or withdrawn while playing through injury. And once he lost fair and square to Novak Djokovic in the 2015 event.

In total, he's had three bad days in 13 years since his first French Open title in 2005, and one was a fluke.

Nadal is so dominant that the world's second-best player on clay, and the guy most people think is the best player in the history of the sport, doesn't even bother to show up at the French Open anymore. Roger Federer skips the French because the entire clay season is too much of a grind, especially if it's not going to end up with another major championship.

Federer has 20 majors and Nadal has 17, and apparently that great rivalry will only play out further on Federer's terms. But this isn't about the argument of who's the greatest tennis player ever. This is to celebrate Nadal in history.

Nadal and Federer have 37 majors and counting between them.
Nadal and Federer have 37 majors and counting between them.Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Secretariat dominated horse racing like no other, but that 1973 Triple Crown season lasted only several weeks. In the old days, UCLA basketball could not be beaten, but the players were changing, and on a team sport there is room for error. Michael Jordan?

You can't resolve this here, but at the very least, Nadal on clay is right there with the best.

"He is human," John McEnroe said on NBC just before the match. "As you get older, you start to question—even him—when it's going to end."

True. But this well might have been the strongest French Open final the 32-year-old Nadal has ever played. Thiem is the up-and-coming kid who is ready to win majors, especially the French Open, if Nadal would ever get out of the way. Thiem, 24, had beaten Nadal on clay earlier this spring, but in the big moment, he tried to muscle Nadal, and it was hopeless. He tried to attack Nadal's backhand, and that, too, was hopeless.

The whole match was hopeless, and every time you looked up, Thiem had his hand on his hip or his eyes fixed on the line, wondering how Nadal did what he just did.

Nadal has comfort on clay. But he has not been doing the same thing over and over again for all these years.

Over 11 years, his hair—and his shorts—have gotten shorter, his backhand flatter and heavier, his serve bigger, his style more aggressive. And somehow it all keeps building.

Spain's Rafael Nadal gestures as he sits beside La Coupe des Mousquetaires - The Musketeers' Trophy after defeating Austria's Dominic Thiem in their men's singles final match on day fifteen of The Roland Garros 2018 French Open tennis tournament in Paris
OLIVIER MORIN/Getty Images

In the old days, in the U.S. anyway, clay-court tennis was seen as sort of a gimmick. There was a clay style of having patience, patience, patience. Nadal used to play that way a lot more than he does now. He had incredible speed and footwork and somehow got more spin on the ball than anyone ever had.

Throughout his career, he has thrown so much into every motion that it always seemed like he was going to get hurt and have a short run. His body seemed broken down in so many instances.

This would have been the natural time in sports to hand things over to the next generation. Nadal wasn't ready. A few years ago, when he lost to Djokovic, it seemed he had turned things over.

But he wasn't ready. A few years before that, he dealt with a knee injury when he lost to Robin Soderling at the French Open in 2009 and couldn't even defend his Wimbledon title. It already looked like his career was in jeopardy.

But Nadal wasn't ready.

Still, you might want to watch him next year at the French. He'll turn 33 years old then, and that might well turn out to be his last shot. It ended for Bolt, for Phelps, for Jordan.

It has to end some day for Nadal, too.

Doesn't it?

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