In a clash between the undisputed king and the only man who has offered a contest to his mastery of the clay courts, Rafael Nadal takes on Dominic Thiem for the biggest prize of them all, Roland Garros. For Nadal it would be title number eleven in Paris and a seventeenth Major overall, for Thiem it is a first final at a Slam. But will the Austrian be able to produce a seismic shock, or will it once again be Nadal who reigns triumphant in the French capital.
Nadal and Thiem have met nine times so far in their careers, with Nadal having had the better of it with six wins to Thiem’s three. Their first meeting came four years ago at Roland Garros on the very court they are set to contest the final, with Nadal beating an untested Thiem 6-2 6-2 6-3 in the second round. When they next met in 2016 in Buenos Aires, Thiem sprung the upset to win a three-set thriller 6-4 4-6 7-6. But Nadal restored his authority with a 7-5 6-3 win in Monte Carlo later that year.
Last year, Nadal beat him again in back-to-back finals in Barcelona and Madrid, winning 6-4 6-1 and 7-6 6-4 respectively. But at the Italian Open, Thiem picked up his second win against the great man, blitzing him in the quarterfinals 6-4 6-3. If that gave him hope ahead of their fourth meeting of 2017 in the French Open semifinals, it was quickly dispelled in a 3-6 4-6 0-6 loss. This year they have met twice and split the wins, with Nadal destroying Thiem 6-0 6-2 in Monte Carlo and Thiem winning 7-5 6-3 in Madrid.
Path to the final
Nadal’s French Open campaign did not begin quite as smoothly as he has grown accustomed to, with the world #1 forced to save three set points to progress in straight sets 6-4 6-3 7-6 against Bolelli. But he was back to his dominant best in brushing aside Pella and Gasquet. He then overcame spirited resistance from Marterer to win 6-3 6-2 7-6. That was followed by a quarterfinal victory over Schwartzman from a set down and an ultimately comfortable 6-4 6-1 6-2 win against del Potro.
Thiem opened his Roland Garros with a dominant 6-2 6-4 6-1 win over Ivashka of Belarus. He then battled past Tsitsipas 6-2 2-6 6-4 6-4 and Berrettini 6-3 7-6 6-3 6-2 to reach the fourth round. There a fast start handed him an all but unassailable position against Nishikori who he defeated 6-2 6-0 5-7 6-4 despite some late resistance from the Japanese. He then crushed a weary looking Zverev 6-4 6-2 6-1 before halting the fairy tale run of Cecchinato 7-6 7-6 6-1.
How do they match up?
Thiem has shown in the past that there is a way to beat Nadal on a clay court by simply hitting every ball as hard as he can. That’s exactly what he did in Madrid, and no tennis player could have withstood such a barrage as the world #8 delivered. But, it’s a strategy that’s high risk as well as high reward. If Thiem cannot find the court enough with his attempted winners, then the match will swing in Nadal’s favour. And as del Potro found in the semifinals, it often takes two or three shots that would have been winners to pierce Nadal’s defence.
Thiem has played magnificently on occasion against Nadal, and the Austrian deserves credit for the fact that there is any doubt about who will lift the title after this match. But Nadal is surely still the heavy favourite and rightly so. He has owned the Philippe Chatrier court, and he seems to raise his level to even greater heights when stepping onto its hallowed turf. Thiem, in contrast, has frozen under the glare before. Nadal in straight sets.