PARIS — This is the French Open championship collision that seemed inevitable from the start, the one that generated the most intrigue as the draw funneled down to this weekend. Dominic Thiem has found a way to sprinkle kryptonite into the clay courts of the great European capitals once in each of the past two seasons, defusing Rafael Nadal‘s superpowers in Madrid and in Rome.
But Paris, to tweak the title of Ernest Hemingway’s famous love letter to the city, has been a predictable feast for Nadal. His ravenous will to win this title for an 11th time — a figure that feels weighty enough to merit Roman numerals instead — was on display Friday as he made a three-set meal of Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro. His appetite was audible in the long, trailing groans of effort that echoed around the old concrete stadium.
“I believe that there is chances, limited chances in your career,” Nadal said. “I lost a lot of opportunities [to] injuries, and I know the years are going quick. So there is not 10 more chances to keep playing here. I just enjoy the fact that I am here again.”
Thiem, the 24-year-old Austrian whose heavy topspin and aggressive offense make him one of the few men ostensibly capable of disrupting Nadal’s Roland Garros hegemony, knows how hard it is to yank the tablecloth out from under Nadal.
“He likes the conditions more here than in Madrid, for sure,” said Thiem, who lost in straight sets to Nadal here in the 2017 semifinals. “Best of five is also different story.
“I think also a good thing is that I faced him already twice here.”
Charmingly, despite Nadal’s accomplishments, he’s still prone to nerves when he steps on center court here. He is 10-0 in French Open finals and 77-0 at the tournament overall when he wins the first set, so getting a jump on him early — a tactic far easier to write about than to execute — would seem to be a fairly obvious strategy.
Nadal seldom leaves the door cracked very long. The vanquished del Potro acknowledged as much as he reflected on the brief stretch when he was able to put up some resistance to Nadal’s unremitting intensity.
“I think that was my chance of the match,” del Potro said of the break points he held at 4-all in the opening set of Nadal’s 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 blitz.
By the absurd standards Nadal has set here, even facing those break points amounts to a lapse, as does the opening set he dropped to terrier-like Diego Schwartzman in the quarterfinals. Nadal’s coach, Carlos Moya, told a small group of reporters it is something to be aware of but not to fixate on: “Not too much focus, otherwise it can get in your head and it’s not helping.”
“Once he gets ahead in the match, his confidence gets back,” said Moya, the 1998 French Open champion. Faltering even slightly “is not something that is happening very often with him, but the way he’s been playing the last three sets yesterday and the last two sets today is gonna help his confidence.”
Thiem is trying not only to overcome Nadal’s massive psychological and experiential edge in his first Grand Slam event final but also to join an elite club of men who have elbowed their way into the Big Four’s monopoly on major titles over the past 10 years.
Entering a smaller tournament in Lyon, France, the week before Roland Garros — an event he won — doesn’t appear to have sapped him. Thiem’s 35 match wins this year are the most of any man on the circuit.
To get a shot to defeat Nadal on clay, Thiem had to first get past an improbable semifinalist, No. 72 Marco Cecchinato, which no one else had managed to do at this edition of Roland Garros.
ESPN’s Nicolas Pereira recaps Rafael Nadal’s comfortable semifinal win over Juan Martin del Potro to set up a meeting with Dominic Thiem.
Cecchinato’s bid to become the spoiler’s spoiler ended, for all intents and purposes, when he was unable to convert any of three set points in an entertaining second-set tiebreaker that was the middle chapter of Thiem’s 7-5, 7-6 (10), 6-1 win. The Italian succumbed quickly in the third set, sparing the French Open from a final in which his match-fixing case would have been rehashed under a global spotlight.
Thiem “plays very heavy topspin, very aggressive, goes for the shots, [has] fitness, condition,” Moya said. “He’s improving every year. He is in the age of improvement. We expect a better Thiem, for sure, than the one we met last year.
But Philippe Chatrier “is his court,” a smiling Moya said of Nadal. “He has the keys, and he has to take advantage.”