In what is fast becoming a fascinating inter-generational rivalry on clay, Rafael Nadal takes on Dominic Thiem in the French Open final for the second straight year.
Nadal, the second seed and an 11-time champion here, knows he cannot under-estimate Austrian fourth seed Thiem when they meet again on Sunday.
Thiem has four wins on clay over the 33-year-old Spaniard, second only to Djokovic. But can the heir apparent become just the third man to beat ‘King of Clay’ Nadal at Roland Garros?
The 25-year-old arrives in the final having overcome world No 1 Djokovic in a five-set semi-final on Saturday, playing for three successive days because of the weather conditions. His opponent, on the other hand, has had a day to rest after his smooth semi-final win over Roger Federer on Friday.
“Yes, it’s incredible to be here again to be honest,” said Nadal, who has never lost a Roland Garros final and boasts a 92-2 record at the tournament since his 2005 debut.
“It is very special and difficult to explain, but here we are. And the day that we start thinking about if it’s incredible or not probably will be the day to do another thing.”
The world No 2 had allowed Thiem just nine games when they met in the 2018 final in Paris.
However, the Austrian won their most recent meeting on clay in the semi-finals in Barcelona in April in straight sets. In fact, the 25-year-old was the only player to beat Nadal on clay in 2017 and 2018 and has continued the streak this year. But he is yet to take a set off the Spaniard at Roland Garros across three meetings.
Nadal leads their head-to-head 8-4, with all but that the 2018 US Open match played on clay. The Spaniard needed five sets to see off Thiem in the quarter-finals in New York, before retiring in the semi-final.
Nadal vs Thiem head-to-head
|2019||Barcelona Open (semi-final)||Thiem||6-4, 6-4|
|2018||US Open (quarter-final)||Nadal||0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7 (4/7), 7-6 (7/5)|
|2018||French Open (final)||Nadal||6-4, 6-3, 6-2|
|2018||Madrid Masters (quarter-final)||Thiem||7-5, 6-3|
|2018||Monte Carlo Masters (quarter-final)||Nadal||6-0, 6-2|
|2017||French Open (semi-final)||Nadal||6-3, 6-4, 6-0|
|2017||Rome Masters (quarter-final)||Thiem||6-4, 6-3|
|2017||Madrid Masters (final)||Nadal||Nadal 7-6 (8/6), 64|
|2017||Barcelona Open (final)||Nadal||6-4, 6-1|
|2016||Monte Carlo Masters (Round of 16)||Nadal||7-5, 6-3|
|2016||Argentina Open (semi-final)||Thiem||6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (7/4)|
|2014||French Open (Round of 64)||Nadal||6-2, 6-2, 6-3|
Nadal has hardly broken sweat at the French Open this year, making the final for the loss of just one set, against David Goffin in the third round.
With Nadal the overwhelming favourite, Thiem refuses to put too much pressure on his shoulders.
Some of the statistics back up his conservative approach.
Nadal has saved 15 of 22 break points (68%) while Thiem has saved 17 of 32 (53%).
On break points converted, the Spaniard has a 37/70 conversion rate (53%) with Thiem making 34 of 71 (48%), less than half his opportunities.
“It’s big dream for me to win on Sunday. But I also have in my head that if it’s not happening tomorrow, which can happen easy because of the opponent who is on the other side of the net, so I think I don’t make myself too much pressure.”
Victory on Sunday will move Nadal on to 18 Majors, just two behind Federer on the all-time list.
“This is something I never dreamed about five, six, eight years ago, but it’s happening today,” said Nadal who has been written off numerous times in his career.
His battles with knee and wrist problems have seen him miss eight Grand Slam tournaments. A wrist injury forced a withdrawal from Roland Garros after two rounds in 2016 which in turn forced him to sit out Wimbledon.
“My goal is to keep going,” a defiant Nadal added.
Despite having to play four days in succession, Thiem said he was happy to come back out again on Sunday.
His coach Nicolas Massu, however, had said he asked the tournament referee if the final could be shifted back 24 hours.
“I think it’s fine. I mean, it’s not the first time that that happens in tennis, and it’s not going to be the last time. That’s our sport,” said Thiem.
Thiem, bidding to become just Austria’s second Roland Garros men’s champion after Thomas Muster in 1995, describes facing Nadal in Paris as “the ultimate challenge”.
“I played a really good match against him in Barcelona. It was six weeks ago. So of course I try to do similar even though it’s way tougher to play him here,” he said.
Despite playing over four hours over two days to defeat Djokovic for just the third time in 10 meetings, Thiem has only spent two more hours on court than Nadal getting to the final.
“I’m feeling fine. I’m full of adrenaline still from today’s match, and also I will have that tomorrow,” he added.
“So I’m not going to be tired. It’s all going to come after the tournament. So I’m ready to leave all or everything what I have out on the court tomorrow.”
Road to the final
1st rd: bt Yannick Hanfmann (GER) 6-2, 6-1, 6-3
2nd rd: bt Yannick Maden (GER) 6-1, 6-2, 6-4
3rd rd: bt David Goffin (BEL x27) 6-1, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3
4th rd: bt Juan Ignacio Londero (ARG) 6-2, 6-3, 6-3
QF: bt Kei Nishikori (JPN x7) 6-1, 6-1, 6-3
SF: bt Roger Federer (SUI x3) 6-3, 6-4, 6-2
1st rd: bt Tommy Paul (USA) 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (7/5), 6-2
2nd rd: bt Alexander Bublik (KAZ) 6-3, 6-7 (6/8), 6-3, 7-5
3rd rd: bt Pablo Cuevas (URU) 6-3, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5
4th rd: bt Gael Monfils (FRA x14) 6-4, 6-4, 6-2
QF: bt Karen Khachanov (RUS x10) 6-2, 6-4, 6-2
SF: bt Novak Djokovic (SRB x1) 6-2, 3-6, 7-5, 5-7, 7-5
With AFP inputs