French Open 2018: Thiem stands in the way of Nadal’s Undecima

Not a single opponent has even been able to take Rafael Nadal to five sets.

On Sunday, Nadal takes on the 24-year-old Austrian Dominic Thiem, who’s been the only player to beat Nadal on clay — the only surface they’ve met on — in the last two years.   -  AP

In the 10 times that Rafael Nadal has won the French Open final, only once did he face an opponent who was given no chance of winning — Mariano Puerta of Argentina in 2005, when the Mallorcan won his first Grand Slam title. In the nine finals since, he has beaten Roger Federer four times, Novak Djokovic twice and Robin Soderling, David Ferrer and Stan Wawrinka once each.

Except for that first match, every final has been between players ranked in the top five in the world. Yet, each of Nadal’s win can be considered lopsided.

 

While Nadal has lost the opening set three times, not a single opponent has even been able to take him to five sets. In all, Nadal has lost just six sets in 10 finals.

These statistics are not surprising considering the French Open champion’s rather one-sided head-to-head record on clay against each of his finals opponents: 13-2 against Federer, 16-7 against Djokovic, 4-1 against Soderling, 6-1 against Wawrinka and 18-1 against Ferrer. Those numbers make for rather long playmakers’ odds.

A challenger, finally?

On Sunday, Nadal takes on the 24-year-old Austrian Dominic Thiem, who’s been the only player to beat Nadal on clay — the only surface they’ve met on — in the last two years. Nadal leads their head-to-head 6-3.

The two have met twice before in the French Open, with Nadal winning in the second round in 2014 and then, in the semifinals last year. In fact, that last match was the second time in two years that Thiem had made the Roland Garros semis. And both times, he lost to the eventual champion.

 

Widely considered the second best player in the world today on clay, Thiem has won 10 titles on the surface. He has a 26-6 record on clay this season; Nadal is 25-1.

And in this French Open, the two are pretty evenly matched.

There was a blip in Nadal’s game in the quarters, where the surging Argentine Diego Schwartzman won the opening set — the first set Nadal had dropped at Roland Garros since his quarterfinal loss to Djokovic in 2015, halting his incredible run at 37 consecutive sets. But the Spaniard seems back at his best now, coming through the semis against Juan Martin del Potro with ease.

READ: I have a plan for Nadal, says Thiem

“On Sunday, I have a very difficult match against a player that is playing great. I know I have to play my best if I want to have chances. Good thing is I played a lot of good matches this clay-court season,” Nadal said. “So Sunday is the day to give my best, is the day to increase even a little bit more the level.”

Unlike the champion’s equanimity, Thiem was all brash confidence: “I think if I’m facing Rafa, I’m not the one who has the pressure.”

The Austrian’s game on Court Philippe-Chatrier on Sunday evening will have to match his words, if he is to stand a chance against Nadal.

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For Thiem, winning here will make him only the second Austrian after Thomas Muster at Roland Garros 1995 to win a Grand Slam. He’ll also become the youngest Slam winner since Djokovic captured the 2008 Australian Open, and the first new men’s Grand Slam singles winner outside of the Big Five since Marin Cilic (2014 US Open).

For Nadal, one record that he will match is of much greater significance: the all-time — not just Open era — record for most singles titles at one Grand Slam, matching Margaret Court’s 11 at the Australian Open spread over the pre-Open and Open eras.

La Undecima.