PARIS – The only man to beat Rafael Nadal on clay this year was Dominic Thiem.
And the only man to beat Nadal on clay last year was Thiem.
So if anyone could head into the French Open final with even the slightest reason to think there’s a chance of preventing Nadal from winning a record-extending 11th championship at Roland Garros, it is his opponent Sunday. Yes, that’s right: Thiem.
“For sure,” said Thiem’s coach, Gunter Bresnik, “this gives you a little hope.”
Not any sort of certainty, of course. Not even necessarily a ton of belief. But, sure, a little hope.
Bresnik knows, right along with everyone else, what a difficult task it is to try to slow Nadal in a best-of-five-set match on his favorite surface and at his favorite tournament.
Nadal is 85-2 for his French Open career, 110-2 in all best-of-fives on clay.
The 32-year-old Spaniard is 10-0 in finals in Paris, winning the trophy every year from 2005-08, then again every year from 2010-14, then again in 2017.
“He’s the best competitor in (any) sport, in my opinion, of all time. It doesn’t matter what sport. The way he competes is unbelievable. He’s physically strong, and you know he’s not going to give up – at any score. He’s not going to give you a free point if he’s up 5-love or down love-5,” Bresnik said. “This is why the guy was dominating clay-court tennis over the last 14 years like nobody else before. And nobody ever will.”
This will be the 10th tour-level encounter between Nadal and Thiem. All have been on clay, and Nadal leads 6-3, including 2-0 in Paris, beating Thiem in the first round in 2014 and the semifinals a year ago.
But if there is a tad of intrigue entering this final, it is because of what happened in Rome on May 19, 2017, and in Madrid on May 11, 2018. On the first date, Thiem defeated Nadal 6-4, 6-3. On the second, Thiem defeated Nadal 7-5, 6-3.
Nadal is 49-0 in all other clay-court contests over the past two seasons.
“I know I have to play my best if I want to have chances,” said Nadal, who needs to win Sunday to hold onto his No. 1 ranking.
Thiem’s ability to bully opponents from the baseline was on display in his 6-4, 6-2, 6-1 victory over No. 2 seed Alexander Zverev in the quarterfinals.
That put Thiem, a 24-year-old from Austria who is seeded No. 7, in the semifinals at the French Open for the third consecutive year. Now he’s made it a step further.
“You know when you start the clay-court season that Dominic, he’s one of these players that have the chance to win every tournament that he’s playing,” Nadal said, “and maybe even (more so) here in Roland Garros, because he’s strong physically. He has the power.”
That might be.
What is definitely true: Thiem has never been to a Grand Slam final until now.
So nerves could come into play in the early going against Nadal, who will be bidding for his 17th major title overall.
As for what sort of tactics will be employed Sunday, Nadal’s coach, Carlos Moya, offered a hint.
“What will be important will be to try and make him play in uncomfortable situations,” said Moya, the 1998 French Open champion. “When (Thiem) is dominating the point, he is very dangerous. Once he is running, he is not that dangerous.”
And Thiem’s approach?
“I know how to play against him,” he said, without elaborating. “I have a plan.”
AP Sports Writers Sam Petrequin and Jerome Pugmire contributed to this report.
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