Even before the men’s draw was made at this year’s French Open, there was little doubt Rafael Nadal would occupy one of the spots in the final. As much a house of his own as any building on Mallorca, the only question was who would stand to challenge him. Fittingly, Dominic Thiem is that man.
Vying for his eleventh Roland Garros title, Nadal must now vanquish the only player to beat him multiple times on clay since the start of 2017. Whether you are rooting for greatness, or the defiance of a seeming inevitability, this is a perfect resolution to that story. Read on for our preview of the 2018 Roland Garros Men’s Final.
It’s been a long road to a first major final for Dominic Thiem, who after two straight years as a French Open semifinalist, has finally broken through at the age of 24. Already locked into world number 7 after this tournament, a win would be more important for general perception, both in terms of causing a monumental upset, and Thiem’s place above the many bridesmaids that have hovered around the Big Four (plus Wawrinka) for the past decade.
As strange as it sounds, this match might have bigger repercussions for Nadal’s immediate future than his actual long-term legacy. A loss here would see him plummet all the way from no 1 to no 2 in the rankings, and really, that’s the extent of the downside here. Not that he won’t be any less motivated, but win or lose, he’s still the king of clay – this is just a bonus.
Coming in off straight-set wins over Juan Martin Del Potro and Marco Cecchinato respectively, both Nadal and Thiem look good entering the final. Nadal seems to have banished the wrist problems that plagued him early in his quarterfinal against Diego Schwartzman, while Thiem came through three-straight four-setters to dominate Sascha Zverev in his quarterfinal, and looked absolutely imperious against Cecchinato.
Now the question on everybody’s lips: does Thiem have a chance? The answer: yes, but it’s not a good one.
Certainly if we were going on history alone, Thiem has done decently compared to most of Nadal’s previous RG final opponents, as while he trails the head-to-head 6-3, all of his wins have come on clay: Buenos Aires 2016, Rome ’17 and a month ago in Madrid. Of course, he’s also been the victim of some shellackings, namely in last year’s RG semis (6-0 in the third) and this year’s Monte Carlo quarters (6-0, 6-2), but there’s enough positive experiences there for the Austrian to draw confidence from.
If Thiem is to pull the upset here, he’ll need two things in particular to go his way. The first is a sub-par Nadal – maybe the wrists are still troubling him, maybe he had some bad Bouillabaisse the night before, or more simply (but about as likely), the 32-year-old just doesn’t have his very best stuff. In that case, Thiem has a chance, but only if he manages to solve a problem that even a reduced Rafa poses.
What is this problem? Well, it’s a question of how Thiem responds to Nadal frequently attacking his backhand side. For as much as Thiem’s forehand will end points, it will be how he plays against Nadal’s forehand and the Spaniard’s tried-and-true method of battering one-handers with high-arcing, extremely heavy topspin that wins them. In those three victories, the Austrian was able to find an answer, as instead of contenting himself with just keeping the rally alive, Thiem countered by either stepping in, flattening-out his backhand and hitting for winners, or stepping around and hitting inside-out and inside-in forehands to put Nadal on the stretch. It’s very high-risk, high-reward tennis that he’ll have to sustain for a ridiculous amount of time, but it’s what Thiem will have to do here.
Still, that won’t be enough if Rafa is… well, Rafa. Even setting aside his ability to grind opponents to dust, few can match Nadal’s knack for hitting ridiculous angles from anywhere on the court, and that goes doubly for Paris. Some very big names haven’t been able to solve the Nadal puzzle in a final — it’s even harder to tip Thiem to do so.
Nadal in Four. As hard-fought a match as this is sure to be, the likely outcome is still that Nadal’s omnipresent ferocity will see him through the day. A win for Thiem would require him to play the tennis of his life for longer than he ever has before, but on this particular court against a full-flight Nadal, even that might not be enough. Thiem will certainly have more chances in grand slam finals, but the time is still now for Nadal, and La Undecima is his to lose.