French Open Day 15 Preview: The Men’s Final

Rafael Nadal goes for his astonishing 11th title at Roland Garros, against the only man to defeat him on clay in the past two years.

Rafael Nadal (zimbio.com)

World Number One Rafael Nadal’s level of dominance on clay over the past 13 years cannot be overstated.  

He is 85-2 at Roland Garros, with 10 titles and a 21-0 combined record in semifinals and finals. Rafa owns 56 career titles on clay, with only eight losses in clay court finals.  It’s been over three years since he lost a final on clay. Earlier this year, he won his eleventh title at two different clay court events: in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. He is now 414-36 lifetime on clay, an all-time best 92% winning percentage after 450 career matches on the surface.  Nadal needs to win this match to hold onto his number one ranking. Rafa comes into this final having only dropped one set in the tournament, and with only one loss on clay this year. That loss, as well as his only clay court loss last year, came at the hands of Dominic Thiem. The Austrian also beat Nadal on clay in Buenos Aires on 2016, though Nadal has six career clay victories against Thiem.  They’ve actually never faced each other on any other surface.

For Thiem, this is his first career major final, on the heels of two consecutive semifinal appearances at Roland Garros.  This is the only Grand Slam event where he’s advanced passed the fourth round. Following his heartbreaking five-set loss to Juan Martin Del Potro in the fourth round of last year’s US Open, Dominic went just 3-6 on the ATP tour through the end of 2017.  Thiem stalled again in the fourth round at the next major, getting upset by 97th-ranked Tennys Sandgren in another five-setter.  But as usual his results picked up on the clay, with his title in Buenos Aires being his first in one year’s time.  Eight of Thiem’s ten career titles have come on clay, with his most recent triumph coming the week prior to the French Open in Lyon.  He’s dropped three sets during this fortnight, so he’s not advanced to this stage as cleanly as Nada.l Despite this being his fifth straight week of play, and already his 12th tournament of the year, he should still be fresh following two straight-set victories in the quarters and semis.  He also had two days off between those rounds, whereas Nadal played on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday due to rain delaying the conclusion of his quarterfinal.

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So does Thiem have a chance?  A small one, yes. He’ll take confidence from his three career victories over Nadal on clay, though none of those were best-of-five.  It will be critical to grab an early lead, as Nadal is a great frontrunner, especially on this surface. Rafa may be vulnerable at the beginning of the match: he’s gotten off to slow starts in both of his last two rounds.  Thiem will need to hit big without completely going for broke, and will need a lot of winners. Both men will be standing near the front row behind them when receiving serve, so it will be crucial for both to quickly establish court positioning near or within the baseline early in the point, as Paul Annacone outlined this week on Tennis Channel in the US.  But Thiem will have many factors working against him, such as his one-handed backhand, Nadal’s experience edge, and Nadal’s current momentum. And remember: Rafa has never lost at this stage of the French Open. I don’t see that changing on Sunday. While I hope Thiem gives us a competitive final, an outcome other than an historic eleventh crown for the king of clay would be shocking.

Route to the final

Nadal
R1 d. (LL) Simone Bolelli 64 63 76(9)
R2 d. Guido Pella 62 61 61
R3 d. No. 27 Richard Gasquet 63 62 62
R4 d. Maximilian Marterer 63 62 76(4)
QF d. No. 11 Diego Schwartzman 46 63 62 62
SF d. No. 5 Juan Martin del Potro 64 61 62
Total time on the court – 15:24

Thiem
R1 d. (Q) Ilya Ivashka 62 64 61
R2 d. Stefanos Tsitsipas 62 26 64 64
R3 d. Matteo Barrettini 63 67(5) 63 62
R4 d. No. 19 Kei Nishikori 62 60 57 64
QF d. No. 2 Alexander Zverev 64 62 61
SF d. Marco Cecchinato 75 76(10) 61
total time on the court – 13:36

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