When a player has a mammoth win-to-loss ratio of 9-0 in the semi-finals of his most successful tournament, the opponent facing him on the other side of the net has the tough task to come up with a game-plan that will bring an end to this record.
In his French Open semi-final against the holder of the said record – nine-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal – Dominic Thiem then looked earnest as he broke the Spaniard in his opening service game in the first set to go up 1-0. Not too happy about this development, Nadal then went about setting things right. And, in the process, gave Thiem quite an education about why he was such a tour de force on the rectangle of dirt in Paris.
The shifting sands of momentum
Nadal, as it turned out, was broken just once in that game. He did face seven more break points – of which, four came in his next two service games – with a couple more coming in the second set, while he faced his last break point while serving for the match in the third set.
But each time it seemed that Thiem would make his way back into the match – after all, he was the player who had ended Nadal’s three-tournament winning streak in the quarter-final of the Rome Masters in May – the Austrian was greeted either by meticulously crafted serves, to which his returns bounced back as unforced errors, or with thundering shots off both his wings that Thiem could only gape at as they zipped from one side of the court to the other, across his line of sight.
Watching Thiem’s confounded expression at what was greeting him was in many ways reminiscent of the past, when another single-handed backhand player, Roger Federer, used to be treated so nonchalantly by Nadal. Much like in the heydays of his lone-sided Roland Garros rivalry with Federer, there was the tone of irreverence Nadal adopted his match against Thiem, which was a tad embarrassing when trying to take in the 24-year-old’s plight.
As the match trickled on, it became quite evident with each game that Nadal was merely biding his time to end it on a burst of speed, like when he marks his warming run-up to the baseline after the toss. Furthermore, with him backing up his play with certitude and his attitude with self-belief – both of which he had lost at the Major after having two back-to-back disappointing years – the resulting intensity and drive rounded off his 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 win at the end of two hours and seven minutes. Even as they jogged back memories of all his previous successful trips to Roland Garros.
Of memories: The good and the not-so good
However, regardless of there being a fount of nostalgia, memories do have underlying harsher comparatives too. In case of Nadal, it’s the same aspects which defined his game against Thiem that came out looking second-best against his past self and the perch of invincibility that he had climbed on to.
It’s then true that Nadal hit his shots well but his timing, which used to be precision-perfect before, wasn’t so on the day. Despite wrecking apart Thiem’s rhythm and game, Nadal did have his fair share of errors, which were the reasons for him facing the aforementioned break points in the first place. While he was impenetrable as an opponent when Thiem challenged him, the absoluteness of Nadal’s invincibility has, at times, been patchy. This is irrespective of him reaching the final after having dropped the second-fewest games in the history of the Majors since they adopted the current draw format.
Far from being a detraction, however, this is a pivotal facet worth emphasising on – to draw the generational bridge between Nadal’s past and present self. While the 19-year-old from 2005 has matured into a wearily-toughened 31-year-old, the latter is still as determined to earn the vaunted La Decima much as the former was to bite into his first Major. That teenaged newcomer from 2005 was travelling down an unknown road, but he also set the guidepost for his future self to draw strength from, thereby completing a unique cycle of self-reliance.