PARIS — When Dominic Thiem gazed into space over Rafael Nadal‘s shoulder during their brief fraternal hug at the net after their French Open championship match, he could be forgiven for wondering how much further away the horizon lies.
Moments later, Nadal bit down lightly on one handle of the silver Coupe des Mousquetaires trophy as per tradition, leaving a few more strands of DNA on the prize he was holding for the 12th time. Following Sunday’s 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 win, and likely forever in collective memory, it is organically his.
Zooming out from that closeup, Thiem’s intrepid but ultimately unsuccessful effort to dethrone Nadal for the second straight year reflects the bigger picture we saw in Paris over the weekend. There is still a logjam on the approach to the summit of men’s tennis, while the women’s game is swarming with younger players capable of planting their flags.
Both trends should be comforting to anyone who has worried about what will happen when the sport’s most celebrated athletes finally yield to age and gravity.
The bracket on the women’s side imploded in this windblown tournament, but when the clay dust cleared, an appealing new ambassador for tennis was left standing: 23-year-old Ashleigh Barty, the versatile Australian who won her first major title here Saturday. The men’s draw dwindled relentlessly to the top four seeds, but a gifted, personable group of players is applying considerable pressure from beneath, including fifth-seeded Alexander Zverev and sixth-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas, who had impressive runs here.
Thiem, 25, is the leader of that beta-dog pack. Yet such is Nadal’s historical prowess here that when the Austrian had the temerity to win the second set – advancing one step further on the final than he could last year — you could almost sense opposing waves of thought crashing amid the crowd at Court Philippe-Chatrier. There was understandable yearning for a lengthy and evenly played match, but anyone who has been paying attention over the past 14 years also braced for the onslaught.
“He stepped on me,” said Thiem, who had distinguished himself through stretches of remarkably punishing play in the first two sets. “I had a little drop, and he was coming out in the third set like a rocket, full power.”
Nadal, who said the intensity of rallies in the early going was “impossible to hold,” nevertheless lifted his level and reeled off 23 of next 30 points, leaving Thiem down two sets to one and with the only mildly comforting thought that he had played well enough to provoke such a rampage.
A clearly elated Nadal skidded and flopped on his back after match point, coating his heretofore spotless neon shirt with the rich red dirt of Roland Garros, where has 93 wins against two losses.
“I think I managed the situation well,” Nadal told reporters later. He noted that while his clay-court season ended in the usual fashion, the leadup in his quest for an 18thGrand Slam title – now two short of Roger Federer — hadn’t been encouraging.
“But, being honest, I never tried to think about, ‘Well, [am] I going to catch Roger’ or not,” Nadal said. “I am not very worried about this stuff, no?
“You can’t be frustrated all the time because the neighbor has a bigger house than you or a bigger TV or better garden. That’s not the way that I see life, you know … I’m going to try my best to keep enjoying tennis, giving myself chances to compete at the highest level, and we will see what’s going on.”
Thiem called his latest tilt against Nadal, which came almost exactly 24 hours after winning the continuation of his suspended five-set semifinal against Novak Djokovic, “a unique and also brutal thing.”
“I think I feel the same regret that I would feel against anybody else in this tournament or in one of the other three [Slams],” Thiem said. “It’s obviously the most difficult thing in our sport to win one of the four majors. First of all, I’m happy and a little bit proud that I gave myself already two opportunities to win one of these. And in the same time, I saw that I have to continue working hard to hopefully give myself more chances to do so.”
There were times when Thiem, his lean jaw jutting, watched the lingering contrail of a Nadal winner with the look of a condemned man who has just been asked whether he wants pommes frites or green beans with his last steak. But although his psyche visibly flagged at times, Thiem kept scolding himself and tried to mash the heavy bag, refusing to be relegated to a mere sparring partner.
On court afterwards, Nadal spoke graciously of Thiem’s work ethic and the class of his entourage. His tone, perhaps unavoidably, reflected the difference between leading man and understudy. “Keep going, you will win this for sure,” Nadal said to Thiem.
The match began on an odd note, with a baby wailing from the stands loudly enough that Nadal paused his serve and glanced helplessly upwards. It was practically the only time he appeared at loose ends. Youth must be served, but as long as the icons are returning so well, the royal succession will have to wait.