Rafael Nadal says winning his 12th French Open is extra special after a turbulent year where he considered taking an extended break because of injury problems.
Nadal, 33, played just three events in 2019 prior to the clay-court season.
But it ended with a 6-3 5-7 6-1 6-1 win over Austrian fourth seed Dominic Thiem in Sunday’s final at Roland Garros.
“I’ve had too many issues. So that makes these last few weeks very, very special,” he said.
“One possibility was to stop for a while and recover my body.
“And the other was to drastically change my attitude and my mentality.
“I was able to change and fight for every small improvement that I was able to make.”
World number two Nadal has been hampered by injury problems over the past two seasons, pulling out of 10 tournaments last year because of a combination of hip, knee, stomach and ankle problems.
After retiring from his US Open semi-final against Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro in September with a knee problem, Nadal did not play for the rest of the year.
The Spaniard had ankle surgery in November, returning at the Australian Open in January when he lost in straight sets in the final to world number one Novak Djokovic.
He did not play again until March at Indian Wells, where he was forced to pull out before his semi-final against Roger Federer with another knee problem.
A five-week break leading up to the clay-court season followed, with Nadal reaching the semi-finals in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid.
That meant he did not win a tour title in 2019 until the Italian Open – the final Masters 1,000 tournament before Roland Garros.
“After Indian Wells, as I said couple of times, mentally I was down,” he said. “I lost a little bit of energy, because I had too many issues in a row.
“It is tough when you receive one and then another.
“Mentally I was not enjoying things. I was too worried about my health and, being honest, I was being too negative.
“After the first round in Barcelona, I was able to stay alone for a couple of hours in the room and think about what’s going on, what I need to do. And since that first match in Barcelona, I think things have been improving every single day.”
His coach Carlos Moya says his fellow Mallorcan has shown he is “mentally a genius” after battling through his injury troubles to triumph again at Roland Garros.
“It’s been the toughest period for sure since I’ve been there. It was really hard. He really had to push himself to the limit to be back on the court, to practise, to be motivated,” said Moya, who linked up with Nadal in 2017.
“He had an unbelievable attitude in those bad moments and that’s what took him to victory today.”
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‘You can’t be frustrated if your neighbour has a bigger house’
Nadal’s victory over Thiem on the Paris clay is his 18th major title, moving him within two of long-time rival Roger Federer’s all-time men’s singles record.
But Nadal has again said catching the Swiss is not on his mind.
“If I catch Roger or not, I am not very worried about it,” he said.
“You can’t be frustrated all the time because the neighbour has a bigger house than you, or a bigger TV, or a better garden.
“That’s not the way that I see the life.
“If, by the end of my career, I am able to win a couple of more Grand Slams and be closer to Roger, it will be unbelievable.
“I am going to try my best to keep enjoying tennis, giving myself chances to compete at the highest level and we will see what happens.”
I was closer than last year – Thiem
Thiem believes he is on the right path towards a Grand Slam title, despite again falling to Nadal in his second major final.
The 25-year-old Austrian lost in straight sets to the Spaniard in last year’s Roland Garros showpiece.
He has been reaping the rewards of his partnership with new coach Nicolas Massu, who replaced his childhood coach Gunter Bresnik earlier this year.
Thiem won his first Masters 1,000 title in March – the tier of tournaments behind the Slams – by beating Roger Federer in the Indian Wells final, and then claimed the Barcelona Open title in April, having defeated Nadal in the semi-finals.
“Even though I didn’t win this tournament, two finals in a row, it’s nice,” he said after his defeat on the Paris clay.
“I think that I have developed my game. I was also closer than last year in the final. So I’m on the right way.
“I failed today, but my goal and my dream is still to win this tournament or to win a Grand Slam tournament.”
Thiem matched Nadal for large parts of an intense opening set, breaking for a 3-2 lead before the Spaniard fought back to win the final four games.
Thiem responded by winning the second set before Nadal took control.
“He played outstanding because especially in the first two sets I played very good tennis,” the Austrian said.
“What he was performing I think is unbelievable.
“I played very good the first two sets, and then I had a little drop, which is against most of the players not that bad.
“But he took the chance and stepped right on me.”
Thiem had 24 hours fewer than Nadal to prepare after his weather-delayed semi-final against Djokovic finished on Saturday afternoon.
He had also played on four consecutive days because his quarter-final against Russian 10th seed Karen Khachanov was pushed back to Thursday after rain led to play being cancelled on Wednesday.
“I didn’t feel tired in the match,” he said.
“But at the same time, a match like yesterday, beating Novak over two days with all the interruption, it leaves traces on the body and also on the mind. That’s 100%.”
Reaction to Nadal’s 12th title
Women’s doubles champion and Thiem’s girlfriend Kristina Mladenovic: “12th Roland Garros titles is absolutely unreal! Very proud to see Domi standing next to this legend of our sport! Your turn is coming soon…”
Fifteen-time golf major winner Tiger Woods: “The King of Clay does not like to share his wealth. Congrats Rafael Nadal on #12!”
Former world number one and two-time Grand Slam champion Lleyton Hewitt: “I see it but I don’t believe it… someone can win 12 Roland Garros singles titles. Rafael Nadal what a performance!”
Eleven-time Grand Slam singles champion Rod Laver: “Simply magnificent Rafael Nadal. Winning a grand slam isn’t easy. Winning 12 French titles is beyond belief. Congratulations King of Clay!”
Former world number one and 12-time Grand Slam singles champion Billie Jean King: “There will never be another Nadal. Congratulations to Rafael Nadal on an incredible 12th French Open win. A genius on clay, with a tremendous work ethic, he’s a role model both on and off the court. Well done!”
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