PARIS – In full control of the French Open final, a quite familiar position for him, Rafael Nadal was suddenly worried.
He led by two sets plus an early rest in the third, when the middle finger in his left hand that held the racket had cramps so severe that he could not straighten it. Having made a mistake, Nadal took the unusual step of heading to the sideline in the middle of a game.
"Hard time," Nadal would say later. "I was very scared".
In the stands, Nadal's uncle, Toni, his former coach, was also nervous, "because I thought maybe we could have a problem," he said. "But in the end, it was not too difficult."
With the old, with the new. It is not supposed to be that way, unless it is the ATP Tour and their names are Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
These are some of Rafael Nadal's season numbers on clay, which culminated in the Spaniard winning the eleventh French Open title on Sunday.
Rarely is it for Nadal in a place he has dominated like no one else has in any Grand Slam tournament. Nadal dealt with that ultimately minor inconvenience and claimed his eleventh French Open championship on Sunday by extending his rivalry record in a 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 victory over No. 7 seed Dominic Thiem.
"There's a reason why he won 11 times here," said Thiem, a 24-year-old Austrian who appears in his first grand final. "It's definitely one of the best things someone has achieved in the sport."
Thiem was on the couch, watching on television, in 2005, when Nadal won his first Grand Slam trophy in Paris at age 19. That started a career of four consecutive wins at the French Open until 2008. He added five straight from 2010 to & # 39; 14 and now has two consecutive.
Launches three titles at the US Open, two at Wimbledon and one at the Australian Open, and Nadal is up to 17 majors, second among men only for Roger Federer 20. The two stars have combined to win the last six Slams.
The victory also allowed Nadal, 32, to stay in first place, ahead of Federer.
If there was any reason for some intrigue when entering on Sunday, it was this: Thiem beat Nadal in red clay in Rome in May 2017 and again in Madrid last month.
But those are not exactly the same French Open, where Nadal is 86-2 in his career.
"I'm sure you'll win here in the next few years," said Nadal. Thiem after.
Against many other opponents, perhaps any other, Thiem would have made things interesting. He hit huge services that exceeded 135 mph, about 25 mph better than Nadal's fastest, and it resulted in seven aces, but he also had five double faults. He took the biggest one of the big ones cut in bottom hits, his feet got up off the ground as he threw his whole body towards them, as if the final result, not of an individual point, but of the whole spectrum, depended on the strength of that . bad of his white racket. That led to 34 winners (eight more than Nadal) but also 42 unforced errors (18 more than Nadal).
It worked. For a moment.
Up to 4-all, 15-all in the opening set, to be precise. Nadal held by 5-4, and Thiem basically delivered the next game, and the set, with four errors. A volley on the net. A broad forehand. A right in the network. A long forehand.
"Terrible fails," acknowledged Thiem.
Just like that, Nadal was in a five-game explosion to lead 3-0 in the second set.
By then, Nadal was finding his spots A right winger down right landed right on the bottom line, leaving Thiem hanging from his shoulders and muttering. Another right-winger from Nadal found a corner, and Thiem shouted towards his coach.
It was a cloudy and humid afternoon, with a temperature of 77 degrees (24 degrees Celsius) and a humidity close to 70 percent. Halfway through the opening game, Nadal's aquamarine shirt was soaked in sweat that it stuck. Those conditions could have contributed to the cramps that affected Nadal about two hours into the final, in 2-1 in the third set.
"I could not move my hand, my finger," said Nadal. "I did not have control of my finger."
His uncle thought that wrapping himself in Nadal's left forearm was too tight. When he stopped the game for the first time, Nadal withdrew that tape, which he said would improve his circulation. In the next change, a doctor gave him a salt pill and a coach mbadaged his left forearm. After drinking water during that break, Nadal felt better and played his unmistakable clay court tennis again.
In short, he would be holding the silver trophy, the one he knows so well, and crying.
A few hours before, while Nadal and Thiem warmed up, the booming voice of the announcer in the court Philippe Chatrier detailed the good faith of both. Nadal's presentation included a year-by-year account of each time he had already won the French Open.
The crowd responded to the 2005 mention, initially offering polite applause. He added more voices by the time that 2008 rolled. The crescendo became a drowned roar for 2017.
Forward and 2018 to the long list.
"If you tell me seven, eight years ago that I will be here … having this trophy with me again, I will tell you that it is something almost impossible," said Nadal. "But here we are"