PARIS — Only Rafael Nadal truly knows what he saw reflected when he glanced into the belly of the big silver bowl, but as he pressed his 11th French Open championship trophy against his cheek, his face began to crumple.
His tears were a reminder that as routine as his victory may have seemed to others, it was never a given for him. The red clay is running through the hourglass, and there’s more piled at the bottom than there is left at the top.
Injuries pockmarked Nadal’s early season and spawned doubt as he prepared to start the clay-court season that has traditionally served as a long taxi-way for Paris. But it all starts over again at Roland Garros. His form is compared to years past and the passage of time is made tangible on his birthday, which falls during the tournament every year.
“You can’t fight against the age, and you can’t fight against the watch,” Nadal said Sunday after defeating Austria’s Dominic Thiem 6-4, 6-3, 6-2. “The watch keep going always. For me, you know, if you tell me seven, eight years ago that I will be here [at] 32 years old having this trophy with me again, I will tell you that is something almost impossible, but here we are.
“I am just trying to keep enjoying, and keep playing until my body resist, and my happiness still high playing tennis. When that change, will be a time to do another thing, and I am not worried about this.”
Nadal’s welling eyes during the trophy ceremony provided a moment of vulnerability after a match that had few of them, apart from a bizarre interlude in the third set when Nadal abruptly stopped mid-service game with a disconcerted expression and left the baseline to request medical attention for a cramping left hand.
For an instant, before it became clear that he could continue, the unthinkable seemed possible. Nadal theorized that the tight wrap on his forearm had cut off his circulation, and he said the unexpected sensation scared him.
“I felt that I was not able to move the hand, the finger,” he said. “I was not under control of my [middle] finger. So, yeah, I just went straight to my chair because I went — I didn’t know even what I did.”
But most of what transpired Sunday afternoon was eminently familiar: The distinctive roar of appreciation when the Spanish superstar walked into the stadium, the whirring accompaniment of photographers’ camera motor drives as he tossed the ball skyward, the sense that when he closed out the first set, it was ballgame on center court even though it was best-of-five on paper.
Australian tennis legend Ken Rosewall told the crowd he would have liked to see a few more sets. Some paying customers at Philippe Chatrier or watching from a distance may have shared that sentiment — a predictable yearning for a close, competitive encounter.
Nadal remained implacable in the homestretch, intent on ignoring his temporarily impaired hand, outracing the rain clouds that hovered close and low but didn’t erupt, and trying to outrun, outhit and outwit a player who was 11 years old when he won his first title here in 2005.
ESPN’s Nicolas Pereira breaks down Rafael Nadal’s record 11th French Open title following his win in straight sets over Austria’s Dominic Thiem.
Thiem, now 24 and ranked a career-high No. 7 following his first major final, said he enjoyed seeing Nadal thundering away from the comfort of his childhood couch far more than trying to field the lightning bolts coming at him across the net Sunday.
He set his jaw and stared off into space, downcast, as the love poured down for Nadal after the match, but managed a smile when Nadal predicted he would win a championship here.
The square-shouldered Austrian tried his best to engage with Nadal rather than let Nadal’s avalanche of statistics overwhelm him. He didn’t look meek or cowed, just frustrated when he missed chances to make minor headway.
“I was really fighting and playing from the first to the last moment,” Thiem said. “And, of course, it was not nice to lose the first set, but still it was not a key point of today.”
The lone player to defeat Nadal on clay over the past two seasons, Thiem made incremental progress by winning nine games Sunday, two more than in each of their previous meetings here. He staved off 12 of 17 break points and converted one of three he earned.
Nadal’s 17th major title inevitably brought questions about his ultimate career goals. “Let me enjoy this title,” he said, mildly. “I can’t be always thinking of more. Of course, I have ambition, of course. I have passion for what I am doing.
“But I never have been crazy about all this kind of stuff. You can’t be frustrated if somebody have more money than you, if somebody have a bigger house than you, if somebody have more Grand Slams than you. You can’t live with that feeling, no? You have to do your way.”
For now, he has locked up the family silver again and this remains his house. Everyone else is just living with that, and living in it.