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Rafael Nadal vs Dominic Thiem French Open tennis live: Resplendent Nadal on the brink of an eleventh Roland Garros title

Hannah Wilks in ATP Tour 10 Jun 2018
  • Rafael Nadal faces Dominic Thiem in the final of the 2018 French Open
  • Nadal vs Thiem French Open tennis is live from Roland Garros on Sunday at 3pm local/2pm BST
Rafael Nadal (THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Rafael Nadal stands on the brink of an epoch-extending eleventh French Open title as he faces first-time finalist Dominic Thiem at Roland Garros.

Only two men have ever beaten Rafael Nadal at the French Open and no one has ever done it in a final – could Dominic Thiem conquer the biggest challenge in tennis in his first Roland Garros final?

Let’s face it, Thiem has always been on his way to a French Open final. Ever since the Austrian, now 24, first broke into the top 50 in 2014, beat Stan Wawrinka at the Madrid Masters and made his first ATP World Tour final on the clay of Kitzbuhel, Thiem has been a force on clay, picking up three clay-court titles in 2015, making the semifinals of Roland Garros in 2016-17. But although he has beaten Nadal on clay no less than three times, Thiem must have hoped, somewhere at the back of his mind, that when he did make it to the French Open final, he’d find somebody else across the net. 

Vain hope. Nadal is, of course, into the French Open final for the eleventh time, and the frankly terrifying thing is that he still has several gears to accelerate through as he prepares to face Thiem.
It’s not just an impressive statement of the relentless quest for self-improvement that Nadal was talking about things he wanted to iron out in his game after his semifinal defeat of Juan Martin del Potro; it also reflects the fact that Nadal hasn’t even played his very best tennis on his way to Sunday’s final – and yet that isn’t at all a comforting thought for Thiem. The Spanish player’s forehand hasn’t been as consistently accurate and penetrating as usual during the clay-court season at all – but that’s just led to an improved backhand, which Nadal is using ever more effectively to dictate play, as the beaten del Potro pointed out. And there have been two, in particular, slow and nervy starts from Nadal – first against Diego Schwartzman in the quarterfinals, when Nadal ended up losing the first set and trailing by a break in the second before turning things around to win 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 (although a storm of inspired, unsustainable shotmaking from Schwartzman and various rain delays also played their part in the story of that match); and secondly against del Potro in the semifinals. 

Nadal didn’t drop the first set against del Potro, but he said afterwards that he was in some ways lucky not to, given that the Argentine started the match very brightly and had no fewer than six break points during the course of the first set, as well as getting to 0-30 in several of Nadal’s service games. Nadal weathered the storm, however, and once he’d lost the first set, del Potro – disastrously but not surprisingly – decided to change his tactics, to no avail. Every thing he did simply made him look more exposed and Nadal ground him ruthlessly into the clay for a 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 victory.

What really doomed del Potro in this match-up was the Argentine’s inability to hit a topspin backhand, something he used to have in his arsenal before the multiple left-wrist surgeries he underwent in 2014-15. It helped Nadal escape his nervous start and win without playing his absolute best, although he was close to it by the end of the match. 

Lack of a topspin backhand is not a problem that Dominic Thiem’s going to have in the final. The Austrian’s heavy, muscular shotmaking has drawn many comparisons to 2015 French Open champion Stan Wawrinka, and he doesn’t lack for ways to hurt Nadal – not when he plays his aggressive best. 

Thiem said that his decision to play Lyon the week before the French Open started was directly inspired by Wawrinka playing Geneva the week before his own Roland Garros triumph, and although it seemed like a bizarre (yet predictable) decision by the workaholic Austrian, coming into Paris off a battling title run in Lyon instead of an early defeat at the Rome Masters seems to have given the seventh seed a confidence boost. Sets have been dropped by Thiem – to Stefanos Tsitsipas, Michael Berrettini and Kei Nishikori – but in his quarterfinal and semifinal, Thiem was more or less impeccable and secured swift, straight-sets victories, first against an exhausted Zverev and then against inspired Italian shotmaker Marco Cecchinato.

The latter match was a difficult one for Thiem to manage emotionally – he had a huge opportunity, facing Cecchinato rather than someone who vastly outmatches him in experience and accomplishments like his previous semifinal opponents Nadal and Novak Djokovic, but he also had a lot of pressure on his shoulders and a very dangerous, free-swinging opponent who was relishing rather than crippled by the occasion. Thiem wasn’t perfect – he let his opponent in to the first set with a dip in focus, and paid the price with a very tricky second set, in which he had to regroup after letting a 6-3 lead in the tie break slip. But when he needed to produce a moment of inspiration to take the second set, he did – in this case a pair of backhand volleys – and rolled through the third set for a 7-5, 7-6(10), 6-1 victory to reach his Grand Slam final.

Now all Thiem has to do is beat Rafa Nadal in it. The good news is that, at least in theory, he knows how to do that – he’s beaten the Spaniard three times out of nine, including in their most recent meeting at the Madrid Masters.

‘I know how to play against him. I have a plan,’ Thiem said. ‘If I want to beat him, I have to play that way like I did in Rome and in Madrid. But I'm also aware that here it's tougher. He likes the conditions more here than in Madrid, for sure. Best of five is also different story.’

Thiem does know how to beat Nadal. It’s pretty much the same formula Wawrinka has used against him; relentless aggression, bone-crunching heavy balls struck from on the baseline, no quarter, no errors, no surrender. It’s just that it’s unbelievably hard to keep that up for three sets, and it has to be executed flawlessly for three sets.

Ultimately, it’s hard to forget that Thiem had also beaten Nadal in their most recent encounter before last year’s French Open final, which was a 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 victory for Nadal; and that when they played at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters, where conditions are a bit more similar to Roland Garros than those in Madrid, Nadal won 6-2, 6-0. It would take an all-time great performance from Thiem, or an almighty under-performance from Nadal, to see any other result than an eleventh French Open title for the peerless Nadal on Sunday. 

Nadal vs Thiem French Open tennis is live from Roland Garros on Sunday at 3pm local/2pm BST

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Rafael Nadal vs Dominic Thiem French Open tennis live: Resplendent Nadal on the brink of an eleventh Roland Garros title

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