Rafael Nadal. Dominic Thiem. The king of clay and his would-be usurper, back in the finals of the French Open So nice, they had to do it twice.
Last year, their contest went decisively the way of Nadal, but much has changed in the interim – the question is, is it enough to change the result? Read on to find out as we preview the 2019 Roland Garros Men’s final.
Comfortably handled in last year’s final, the story for Thiem in this one is almost as much about redemption as it is about realisation. Certainly in the past year the Austrian has proven he has the goods to take it to Nadal on his favourite surface, but it won’t count for much if he comes up similarly short again. Additionally in the case he does come up short, the 26-in-September Austrian will find himself staring down the back-end of his physical prime slam-less, inching closer to the realm of “lost gen” players Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic, and Kei Nishikori.
For Nadal, the narrative is much the same as it’s been the past six-or-so times: win, and further drive home the “King of Clay” moniker that has been indisputable since about 2008, while extending his RG haul to 12 – a record that surely won’t be beaten in any of our lifetimes. Of course, there’s also the minor matter of the GOAT debate, with an 18th major obviously strengthening his case.
Enduring a disappointing spring by his standards, Nadal came into Paris with just one measly clay title in Rome to his name, and yet you wouldn’t know it the way he’s played this fortnight. Only dropping a single set in a momentary lapse against David Goffin, Nadal topped an otherwise unperturbed run through the draw by partaking in his favourite French Open pastime of crushing Roger Federer, and comes into this one looking very much like his old, all-conquering self.
In comparison, Thiem’s run has been a bit strange. His clay season was very up-and-down prior to Paris – albeit beating Rafa on the way to the title in Barcelona – and in Paris it took awhile for him to get going, dropping a set in each of his first three matches. However, once he did get going, he managed to roll through Gael Monfils and Karen Khachanov before downing Novak Djokovic in a two-day, five-set classic, and assuming fatigue isn’t a factor, you’ve got to rate any bloke who just knocked-off an otherwise dominant world number one.
A rivalry that has consistently produced some of the most brutal, hard-fought tennis you’ll ever see, Nadal-Thiem is sure to be a slugfest. That said, with an 8-4 lead in the head-to-head – and a 4-0 advantage at majors – Nadal comes in a heavy favourite. The question then for Thiem is, will the fifth time be the charm?
At the very least, he has cause for confidence, given his 6-4, 6-4 victory over the Spaniard a few weeks ago in Barcelona. In that match, Thiem was very successful getting Nadal to play on his terms, hitting heavy forehands closer to the centre of the court where he could make the rally more about depth than angles, and then when the Spaniard did get the opportunity to employ his tried-and-tested tactic of pounding heavily-spun forehands to one-handed backhands, either stepping-in and flattening-out or stepping around that shot entirely, always looking to end points.
Unfortunately for the Austrian, repeating that performance here is an incredibly tall task. Even setting aside the fact this is Nadal’s absolute favourite court to play on, it’s just a very ambitious form of tennis which is hard to sustain over three sets, let alone five. Add in the fact Nadal is going to get his own licks in, can flip points on their head with a single ripped forehand down the line or rifled backhand crosscourt, is better at net, and more consistent with his second serve, and well… there’s a lot working against him.
Simply put, Thiem can win this match, but he just isn’t likely to. At least for the neutrals, the good news is that even if this match ends up being a Nadal masterclass, it will still produce some spectacular tennis. No other players can work a tennis ball like Nadal and Thiem can, and that alone makes in a final worth watching.
Nadal in four. Unable to take a set off Nadal last year, this time Thiem should come in a little more free-swinging and do enough to steal one, but in the end, the Spaniard will still prove to be too immense. As it has been for eleven of the past fourteen years, so it will be again: Rafael Nadal is your Roland Garros champion.