The years go by. We get older, and we watch our loved ones do the same. We move through the stages of life, from infancy to adulthood to the hereafter. We love and we lose, we suffer tragedy and revel in triumph. And through it all, Rafael Nadal just keeps winning French Opens.
Nadal defeated Dominic Thiem 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 to claim his astounding 12th French Open. Thiem put up a touch of a fight early on, even claiming a rare set from Nadal, but in the end, he learned again what the rest of the world has long known: there’s no tougher challenge in all of sports than trying to defeat Nadal at Roland Garros.
With the victory, Nadal now has more Grand Slam wins at the French Open alone than almost any other player has everywhere — more than Borg, more than Laver, more than Connors and Agassi and McEnroe.
Nadal had won 11 French Opens coming into Sunday, and in the opening set, it wasn’t hard to see why. Thiem played some of the best tennis of his life, covering every angle and rocketing his devastating one-handed backhand ... and he still ended up losing that first, hour-long set 6-3.
RELATED: Rafael Nadal through the years
Rafael Nadal through the years
Rafael Nadal through the years
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - JANUARY 16: Rafael Nadal of Spain eyes up a backhand return against Jiri Novak of the Czech Republic in their semi-final match at the Heineken Open in Auckland, New Zealand on January 16, 2004. Nadal knocked out the fancied Novak 6-1, 6-3. (Photo by Nigel Marple/Getty Images)
ALICANTE, SPAIN: Spain's Rafael Nadal celebrates after defeating France's Arnaud Clement in their fourth match of the Davis Cup semi final between Spain and France 26 September 2004 in Alicante. Spain advanced to the 2004 Davis Cup final taking an unbeatable 3-1 lead over France. Spain's Rafael Nadal beat Arnaud Clement 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 in two hours, 12 minutes to book a second consecutive spot in the final which they will host against the United States from December 3-5. It will be the fifth Davis Cup final for Spain who were runners-up in 1965, 1967 and 2003, and winners in 2000. AFP PHOTO / JOSE JORDAN (Photo credit should read JOSE JORDAN/AFP/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 23: Portrait of Rafael Nadal of Spain taken on May 23, 2004 during the French Open Tennis Championships at Roland Garros in Paris, France. (Photo by John Gichigi/Getty Images)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 20: Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates match point against Mikhail Youzhny of Russia during day four of the Australian Open Grand Slam at Melbourne Park January 20, 2005 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
KEY BISCAYNE, FL - APRIL 03: Rafael Nadal of Spain wipes his brow during play against Roger Federer of Switzerland in the men's final during the NASDAQ-100 Open at the Crandon Park Tennis Center on April 3, 2005 in Key Biscayne, Florida. Federer won the match 2-6, 6(4)-7(7), 6-3, 6-1 (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
LONDON, United Kingdom: Rafael Nadal of Spain reacts after winning a point Irkli Labadze of Georgia during the 4th round of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in Wimbledon, in south London, 03 July 2006. AFP PHOTO/GLENN CAMPBELL (Photo credit should read GLENN CAMPBELL/AFP/Getty Images)
Melbourne, AUSTRALIA: World number two Rafael Nadal of Spain eyes the ball as he serves during a practice session in the lead-up to the Australian Open in Melbourne, 12 January 2007. Nadal had a successful year in 2006 winning five titles including the French Open and is seeded second in this year's Australian Open. AFP PHOTO/Paul CROCK (Photo credit should read PAUL CROCK/AFP/Getty Images)
Rafael Nadal of Spain returns the ball in his game against Fernando Gonzalez of Chile during their men's tennis match on day eight of the Australian Open in Melbourne on January 26, 2009. Top seed Rafael Nadal maintained his perfect record as he swept past Chile's Fernando Gonzalez and into the Australian Open quarter-finals. Nadal, who is yet to drop a set, dominated the 2007 finalist 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 to advance to a last-eight clash with France's Gilles Simon as he seeks his first hard-court Grand Slam win. AFP PHOTO / WILLIAM WEST (Photo credit should read WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)
Spanish tennis player Rafael Nadal (L) and Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas attend a press conference during a Red Cross media event against malaria at Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, 30 November 2007. AFP PHOTO / JAVIER SORIANO (Photo credit should read JAVIER SORIANO/AFP/Getty Images)
Spanish world number two Rafael Nadal serves to Italy's Simone Bolelli on the second day of the Qatar Open in Doha on January 5, 2010. Nadal started the 2010 ATP World Tour with a comfortable-looking draw against the world number 93 from Italy - and with his projected semi-final opponent suddenly removed. The fourth-seeded Mikhail Youzhny fell at the first hurdle against Sergiy Stakhovsky, the former US Open junior finalist, an outcome which may be more helpful to Nadal than it may at first seem, since the Russian demolished him in the opening week of the 2008 season in the Chennai final. AFP PHOTO/KARIM JAAFAR (Photo credit should read KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Spain's tennis player Rafael Nadal (2nd L) poses next to French State Secretary for Sport Rama Yade (2nd R), France's National Assembly president Bernard Accoyer and French Tennis federation president Jean Gachassin, after being awarded by the French Sports Academy with the performance of the year 2008 prize, on November 9, 2009 in Paris. AFP PHOTO / FRANCK FIFE (Photo credit should read FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 27: Rafael Nadal of Spain reacts during the men's singles round robin match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia during the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals at the O2 Arena on November 27, 2009 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Spain's Rafael Nadal (L) celebrate holding the David Cup trophy next to tammate David Ferrer after winning the Davis Cup final against Argentina at La Cartuja Olympic stadium in Sevilla on December 4, 2011. Spain's Rafael Nadal got the winning point as Spain won a fifth Davis Cup. The world number two beat Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro to give the hosts an unbeatable 3-1 lead, rallying from a set down to see off the 2009 US Open champion 1-6, 6-4, 6-1, 7-6 (7/0). AFP PHOTO/JAVIER SORIANO AFP PHOTO / CRISTINA QUICLER (Photo credit should read CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP/Getty Images)
Rafael Nadal of Spain views the ball as he serves to Ruben Bemelmans of Belgium during their second round match in the ATP Thailand Open tennis tournament in Bangkok on September 30, 2010. Nadal beat Bemelmans 6-1, 6-4. AFP PHOTO/PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL (Photo credit should read PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images)
Spain's Rafael Nadal returns the ball to Switzerland's Roger Federer (not pictured), during their singles final tennis match, on the last day of the ATP World Tour Finals, at the O2, in south-east London on November 28, 2010. AFP PHOTO / IAN KINGTON (Photo credit should read IAN KINGTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Rafael Nadal of Spain serves during his men's finals match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia at the 2011 US Open tennis tournament September 12, 2011 in New York. AFP PHOTO/DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)
Spanish tennis player Rafael Nadal during a press conference of the Brazil Open in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on February 12, 2012. Nadal played in Chile winning doubles but lost his final after being away more than 7 months due to his left knee injure. AFP PHOTO/Yasuyoshi CHIBA (Photo credit should read YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)
LIMA, PERU - NOVEMBER 17: Rafael Nadal of Spain waves to the audience after an exhibition at Jockey Club on November 17, 2013 in Lima, Peru. (Photo by Gabriel Rossi/LatinContent/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - OCTOBER 03: Rafael Nadal of Spain leaves the court after losing his match against Martin Klizan of Slovakia during during day seven of the China Open at the National Tennis Center on October 3, 2014 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)
Tennis - French Open - Roland Garros - Paris, France - 12/06/17 - Spain's Rafael Nadal poses with the trophy near the Eiffel Tower, a day after winning the tournament. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
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But in the second set, Thiem found life. He and Nadal traded foundation-cracking punches, holding serve after serve. Thiem managed to win the set by the narrowest of margins, 7-5, a remarkable achievement in many regards. It was Thiem’s first set win on clay against Nadal in 10 attempts, and it marked only the second time Nadal has ever lost a second set at the French Open, the first since 2007.
Thiem reached that mountaintop only to see an entire range still awaiting him. See, beating Nadal in a set at Roland Garros doesn’t intimidate him; it just makes him mad. Nadal broke Thiem on four straight points in the first game of the third set, dusted him in four straight points in the second game, and then broke Thiem again en route to a 4-0 third-set lead. He would go on to win the set 6-1, setting up a decisive and crucial fourth set.
But by then, Thiem seemed gassed, both mentally and physically. Nadal won the first three games of the fourth set and nearly broke Thiem yet another time. By then, it was all over but the grunting, and Thiem’s dead-cat bounce came to rest. Nadal broke Thiem to go up 5-1, and minutes later, La Coupe des Mousquetaires, the champions’ trophy, was his yet again.
The fact that Nadal won yet another final at Roland Garros isn’t at all surprising; coming into Sunday, he was 92-2 in matches all-time at the French Open, a literally unbelievable stat. He arrived in the final by beating Roger Federer in straight, unremarkable, relentless sets in the semifinal, a match that might well signal Federer’s final appearance at Roland Garros.
Thiem, meanwhile, only had to fight his way through the No. 1 player in the world. It took two days, four delays and five sets, but Thiem knocked off Novak Djokovic in his own semifinal. The victory denied Djokovic the chance to once again hold all four majors at once ... and maybe, just maybe, served as a preview of tennis’s future.
Thiem remains the best active bet to break the decade-plus of dominance that the Big Three — Nadal, Federer, Djokovic — have held over the world of men’s tennis. He had quite the French Open even prior to the final, from the moment where he got bounced from his own press conference to make room for Serena Williams:
Dominic Thiem was midway through the German-speaking section of his press conference when he was told he had to leave the main interview room and switch to a smaller one in order to accommodate Serena Williams after her loss to Sofia Kenin. He was furious. Understandably.#RG19pic.twitter.com/KyzOAuh8mm