Rafael Nadal likely to turn French Open up to 11 despite Thiem’s threat
It is not inconceivable – indeed, it is likely – that Rafael Nadal will finish his career with more French Open titles than has majors, and he should take the aggregation to 11 on Sunday, regardless of the quality of his opponent, Dominic Thiem.
The 24-year-old Austrian, widely considered the second-best player on clay right now, has a decent record against Nadal and, for the second year in a row, he is the only player to have beaten the Spaniard on clay coming into Roland Garros, after last month. That streak began after .
They have only ever played each other on clay. Nadal has won six of those, two in finals in straight sets, and in both of their matches here, in the second round in 2014 and .
So, if a player as good on clay as Thiem is still struggling for parity with Nadal, and there is no other obvious contender to trouble him, his path to at least 13 or 14 French titles would seem to be one covered in rose petals – if he stays healthy. Robin Söderling, one of two players to beat him at Roland Garros (alongside Djokovic), , and he should know.
Can Djokovic, idling with 12 majors, get back on the board? Perhaps. But he has not won a grand slam since . Although he came to life again in this tournament, , ranked 72 in the world, in a 22-minute tie-break that catapulted the Italian into the semi‑finals, where he ran out of steam against Thiem on Friday.
The Serb has a deal of work to do to get back to the stratospheric levels he reached before his right elbow gave up on him so spectacularly last year.
There was cause for concern, also, when Nadal quit with a leg injury in the fifth set of his quarter-final against Marin Cilic at the Australian Open this year, heightened when he then withdrew from hard‑court tournaments in Acapulco, Indian Wells and Miami – but he has blossomed on the red dirt of Europe. Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome fell at his feet again, with just that single blip in Madrid.
It was a significant victory for Thiem, who will use it to fuel his self-belief in the face of considerable odds. If he is looking for further inspiration it is there on his doorstep, in the form of a man regarded as the first king of clay. As odd as it seems, Thiem played one match against Thomas Muster, who won the title here in 1995 when in his pomp.
In 2011, Thiem beat his esteemed compatriot, 6-2, 6-3, in just over an hour on the indoor hard court of Vienna and still had to work hard to handle the heavy left-handed serve of the former world No 1. It must have been eerie looking at a mirror image of himself, with his single‑handed backhand, and he spoke briefly about Muster’s influence on his career after his win over Cecchinato.
“He sends a message to my physio, because they work together. We have a special relationship because of that match. It was the last ATP match of his second career [returning after a freak roadside accident in Miami in 1989]. We see each other every year in Vienna. He’s a role model for every Austrian tennis player. He’s the biggest in our sport.”
Thiem’s right arm can be lethal when properly grooved and he is comfortable giving full vent to his power on the backhand side, much in the manner of the absent Stan Wawrinka, who shocked Court Philippe Chatrier when .
That is an unlikely scenario on Sunday. Although there have been slivers of hope for Nadal’s rivals in a couple of his matches – dropping the first set against Diego Schwartzman in the quarters, after having to fight hard to get rid of Maximilian Marterer in the previous round. But those were illusory. He has never lost a final here – and he probably never will.