The two best clay-court players over the past two years — Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem — will square off in Sunday’s Roland Garros final with the former going for an 11th title in Paris and 17th Grand Slam trophy and the latter chasing a maiden major success.
The Nadal-Thiem rivalry is one that has only existed on clay, with the Spaniard edging their head-to-head 6-3.
Last season, they faced off four times on the red dirt, with Thiem pulling off the upset in the Rome quarter-finals and Nadal triumphing in all other three encounters.
This year, it’s their third clash on the surface and they enter Sunday’s final tied at 1-1 in 2018.
If Nadal will ever pass the clay baton onto someone, Thiem is the obvious and likely heir-apparent.
Here’s a look at all the numbers ahead of the final…
1 – Nadal will retain his No. 1 ranking if he wins on Sunday. If he loses, Roger Federer will replace him at the top.
1 – Thiem is the only player to defeat Nadal on clay before Roland Garros in the past two seasons.
2 – titles won by Thiem this season — in Buenos Aires and Lyon.
2 – Thiem is bidding to become the second Austrian — man or woman — to win a Grand Slam title, behind Thomas Muster.
2 – victories for Thiem against a reigning world No. 1. He’ll try to get his third on Sunday.
3 – titles won by Nadal so far this season — in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome.
3 – Thiem is one of only three players — alongside Novak Djokovic and Gaston Gaudio — to have defeated Nadal on clay on three or more occasions.
7 – If Nadal wins the final, the last seven Grand Slam titles will have been won by players aged 30 or older. The last player aged younger than 30 to win a major title was Murray (aged 29 years 56 days) at Wimbledon 2016.
7 – Thiem will be ranked No. 7 in the world on Monday. His career-high is No. 4.
9 – Having defeated No. 2 seed Alexander Zverev in the quarter-finals, Thiem could become just the ninth man in the Open Era to beat both the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds at a Grand Slam – and just the fourth man to achieve the feat at Roland Garros.
10 – Thiem is on a 10-match winning streak heading into Sunday’s final, having won the title in Lyon before the start of Roland Garros.
11 – Nadal is bidding to become only the second player in history to win 11 singles titles at any Grand Slam after Margaret Court, who won the Australian Open singles title on 11 occasions.
11 – Nadal is bidding to become the first player in the Open Era to win 11 titles at three different tour-level events (has already won 11 times in Barcelona and Monte Carlo).
11 – Nadal is on an 11-match winning streak entering Sunday’s final, having picked up the trophy in Rome in his last event before Roland Garros.
16 – wins and seven losses for Nadal in Grand Slam finals throughout his career.
24 – Aged 24 years 280 days, Thiem is bidding to become the youngest Roland Garros champion since Nadal won the title here in 2010. Thiem is also bidding to become the youngest Grand Slam champion since Djokovic (24 years 252 days) won the 2012 Australian Open.
26 – match wins on clay for Thiem this season, a tour-leading tally. Nadal could match him if he wins on Sunday.
35 – victories for Thiem this season, the most won by any player on the men’s tour.
56 – Nadal owns a record 56 career clay-court titles.
109 – of Thiem’s 206 tour-level victories have come on clay.
110 – match wins and just 2 losses for Nadal in best-of-five matches on clay.
178 – km/hr is the average speed of Nadal’s first serve at Roland Garros this fortnight. The fastest serve he clocked this tournament was 200km/hr.
181 – km/hr is the average speed of Thiem’s first serve at Roland Garros this fortnight. The fastest serve he clocked this tournament was 224km/hr.
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Juan Martin del Potro tends to provide tons of memorable moments on the court – I mean with a forehand like that, how can he not?
But it’s not just his tennis that grabs your attention, it’s every tiny detail, from his interaction with the line judges and chair umpire – hugs have been passed around from time to time – to his back-and-forths with spectators in the stands.
After his match with John Isner in the quarter-finals, Del Potro’s way of responding to an enthusiastic American fan who chanted “U-S-A, U-S-A” throughout the entire match was to sing “Allez les Bleus” – a popular chant among French sports fans – during his on-court interview.
He scored some valuable points with the French crowd that day.
During his semi-final against Marin Cilic, Del Potro was furious at a spectator who made a sound when he was serving, causing him to double fault. The Argentine couldn’t exactly determine who the culprit was. He joked during his press conference that he’s still searching for him.
“It was someone who made a loud [sound] before my serve, and I made a double fault. That’s why I got angry with someone. I couldn’t find the right person,” he said with a smile on Thursday.
“But I get closer to them, just asking who was it? But I’m still trying to find the right person,” he added, sending the room into laughter.
“But anyways, then it was my fault. I mean, the crowd are amazing, and that happens very often. But I wasn’t focused in that moment, so I made the mistake.”
40 YEARS YOUNG
Elsewhere, Rafael Nadal got a question he did not expect. A Spanish-speaking reporter told him that Real Madrid have released a study that shows that the 33-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo has a body of a 23-year-old, with only 7 per cent body fat. She asked Nadal, who is 32, how he felt his body, and what tricks he has to keep himself in shape.
“My body is about 40 years old, but I’m not really focusing on that,” said Nadal, who has suffered numerous serious injuries throughout his career.
“I’m just playing tennis. I’m not really interested by all these things, and I don’t think that — you can’t really know the reality of how old is your body.
“I’m 32, and I’m how I am. I’m happy. I accept my age. I try to adapt to all the changes that the body is going through over the years. There are things that are lost and there are other things that are gained, and I’m trying to improve all the time. That’s it. I’m happy for Cristiano that he’s 23, his body is 23.”
The American has an interesting personality, and her relationship with the media is often tough to figure out. You cannot tell if she loves talking to journalists or hates it, and the answer if probably: Somewhere in between.
She’s had plenty of face time with reporters this fortnight en route to the final and it seems the attention hasn’t been off-putting.
“It’s not bad. You guys actually haven’t been bad the last two weeks, so it’s okay,” Stephens joked on Friday in her pre-final press conference.
“Yeah, obviously with wins and the deeper you go into a tournament, there is more expectation on you, and here obviously.
“It’s not always fun. Today is my off day, and I’m spending it with you guys. It’s not ideal, but it’s what comes with winning. So it’s not too bad.”
After a year in which she suffered a gut-wrenching Roland Garros final defeat, rose to No. 1 in the world, and missed another shot at claiming a maiden Grand Slam trophy, Simona Halep says not much has changed for her during that time – except one thing.
“Maybe I am smiling more,” the affable Romanian told reporters in Paris on Friday, ahead of her final against American No. 10 seed Sloane Stephens.
Halep, who is gunning for a first major title in her fourth appearance in a Grand Slam championship match, has a shot at redemption on Saturday.
Last season, she blew a 6-4, 3-0 lead against an unseeded Jelena Ostapenko in the French Open final and walked away as the runner-up. That defeat also denied her the chance to become the first Romanian woman to hold the No. 1 ranking. Halep rose to the summit anyway at the end of the season and has been at the top for a total of 31 weeks so far.
Entering a second consecutive Roland Garros final, ranked No. 1 in the world, on Friday Halep did the same thing she did the day before last year’s title match. She sat courtside to watch a men’s semi-final on Court Philippe Chatrier.
— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) June 8, 2018
Instead of Andy Murray against Stan Wawrinka last year, it was Rafael Nadal against Juan Martin del Potro that grabbed Halep’s attention on Friday. The Romanian is above all a tennis fan who loves the sport.
“Well, I think is the same pleasure, the same happiness that I am in this position again,” she said on Friday of making a third Roland Garros final. “It’s a very special moment. And to be able to play two finals in a row at this tournament means a lot for me. It’s my favourite Grand Slam. I feel like home here. It’s nice to face another big challenge.”
Halep’s opponent on Saturday is the reigning US Open champion. Stephens had been out of action from August 2016 to June 2017 with a foot injury before she enjoyed the most stunning comebacks in all of sport. In her third tournament back, she reached the semis in Toronto. In her fourth, she made semis in Cincinnati. In her fifth, she won the US Open.
“It was really amazing what she did last year without playing, like, nine months or 11 months. She came and after two tournaments she won a Grand Slam. That’s pretty amazing. I know she’s a great player. She’s powerful,” Halep said of Stephens, who trails the Romanian 2-5 head-to-head overall and 0-2 on clay.
Halep maintains that her desire for a first Slam title is big. But she also insists that a loss on Saturday will not be a tragedy. The 26-year-old says she’ll treat today’s final like any other match. That’s easier said than done of course. But maybe repeating it often can help her manifest that into reality.
“So I lost three times until now and no one died, so it will be okay,” Halep said with a smile after her semi-final victory over Garbine Muguruza on Thursday.
“But I will be, I think, more confident, because I have a lot of experience. But in tennis, you never know, so I will stay chill.”
While there are layers of complexity when it comes to Halep’s Grand Slam saga, it feels like the complete opposite for Stephens, who is 6-0 in career finals, and has looked incredibly solid this fortnight.
“Like I keep saying, it’s another great opportunity being in a final of a Slam, so just got go out and compete. Really nothing more, nothing less to it,” Stephens said on Friday.
Stephens took out three seeds in a row en route to the final – No. 25 Anett Kontaveit, No. 14 Daria Kasatkina, and her good friend and fellow American No. 13 seed Madison Keys most recently in the semi-finals.
Keys also fell to Stephens in the US Open final last September.
“I think Sloane has always had the ability to win slams. She’s gone deep in Slams before,” said Keys on Thursday.
“I think being away from the sport, she realised how much she loved it, and we saw that last summer when she came out and she was playing unbelievable.
“So I think she remembered how much she loves playing tennis, but more than that, I think then she started doing well and she won the US Open. When that starts happening, I think it’s a lot easier to get out there and try to do it again.”
In a way, the pressure should be far more on Halep’s shoulders as looks to avoid losing a fourth Slam final. But Halep doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t feel pressure,” insists the world No. 1.
“I feel that it’s a big challenge for me. It’s a big chance to win my dream tournament. But this doesn’t mean it’s going to happen or something like that. I have just to play like I did yesterday (against Muguruza). It’s a normal match I played against these opponents.
“So we will see what is going to happen tomorrow, but I just want to be smiling on court.”