Rafael Nadal will be looking to avoid another slow start when he takes on Dominic Thiem in the Roland Garros final on Sunday, with the Spaniard’s coach Carlos Moya assuring that they expect a tougher version of the opponent they faced in last year’s semi-finals here in Paris.
Moya admits that nerves accounted for Nadal losing the opening set against Diego Schwartzman in the quarter-finals on Wednesday – before rain suspended play until the following day – as well as the tight opening set the world No. 1 contested against Juan Martin del Potro in Friday’s semis.
Del Potro did everything right against Nadal in that opener, except actually winning the set. The tall Argentine created six break point opportunities on the Mallorcan’s serve, and faced none on his own in the first nine games. But Nadal saved all six and broke in game 10 to take a one-set lead. It was cruise control for the 10-time Roland Garros champion from then on.
Nadal might not be able to get away with a nervy start against an opponent like Thiem, who is the only player to defeat him on clay in the build-up to Roland Garros over the past two seasons.
Moya says he’ll make sure they try to address that ahead of the final.
“He’s feeling a bit insecure maybe at the beginning and once he gets ahead in the match his confidence comes back. It’s something we’re aware of, it just happened in the last couple of matches, it’s not something that is happening very often with him. But yes it happened in the last two matches. But I guess the way he’s been playing the last three sets yesterday and the last two sets today is going to help give him confidence,” said Moya on Friday.
“We will talk about that [nervous starts]. We don’t have to forget that, we have to be aware of that, but also not give too much importance to that otherwise it can get in your head and it’s not helping.”
The plan is for Nadal to practice for one hour on Saturday morning and then rest all afternoon, Moya told Spanish radio station Cope.
“We’ll play Parchis [Spanish board game] and we’ll let Rafa win so that he’s happy before the final,” joked Moya. “I’ll pretend that I’m angry but it’s a tactic.”
Nadal is 6-3 head-to-head against Thiem, but they’ve split their two meetings this season. All of their previous encounters have come on clay and the Austrian No. 7 seed knows what he needs to do if he wants to end Nadal’s reign at the French Open.
But an 85-2 win-loss record like Nadal’s in Paris is not something easy to shake.
“It’s his court, he has the keys and he has to take advantage of that,” said Moya, referring to Nadal’s track record at Philippe Chatrier stadium.
“It’s not going to be easy but he’s facing Dominic, we know he’s the only player that beat him on clay the last couple of years. He’s a player that can be adapted more to the clay, it will be tough.”
Moya, the 1998 French Open champion, added: “Dominic plays very heavy topspin, very aggressive, good fitness condition, he’s probably the best clay-court player right now, along with Rafa. Although he can lose matches, but the way he plays suits clay courts very well.”
Patrick Mouratoglou, coach of Serena Williams and commentator for Eurosport, believes Thiem has the game to upset Nadal, but he’ll need to execute his game plan perfectly.
“Of course the chance is really small [for Thiem] but I think that DelPo kind of showed the way. I think he showed that at the start of the match Rafa was very nervous and you have to keep his head under the water, and that’s what DelPo couldn’t do today,” said Mouratoglou.
“You can’t afford to miss the occasions against Rafa. If you don’t miss the occasions you have a chance to keep his head under the water and then he is beatable. If not, you have the second and the third sets of today’s match, it speaks for itself. He starts to be more loose, he starts to go for it, and then he’s unplayable.
“Same against Schwartzman, where Rafa was saved a bit by the rain. For sure he is beatable, but you have to have the level, and Dominic has the level and you have to play the perfect match and the most important thing is you can’t miss the occasions that you have. If you do, it’s finished. And so that puts the bar really high and the pressure is at its maximum, that’s why he’s so tough to beat.”
Nadal has dropped just one set en route to the final while Thiem lost three – one against each of Stefanos Tsitsipas (round two), Matteo Berrettini (round three) and Kei Nishikori (round four).
Last year, Nadal completed a ‘Decima’ in Paris, lifting the trophy without dropping a set and losing just 35 games in total.
“It’s difficult to better the performance he had last year here,” Moya said of Nadal’s 2017 masterpiece.
“Well Monte Carlo this year he was very close to that level, but it’s hard to see that again.”
Thiem was one of Nadal’s victims during his 2017 French Open campaign, where the Austrian lost 6-3, 6-4, 6-0.
Thiem could only muster two games against Nadal in Monte Carlo last April but got his revenge a few weeks later with a straight-sets win in Madrid. It was a match where Nadal was completely outplayed and in which he later admitted to being nervous.
“I guess he [Thiem] is improving every year, he’s 24 right now, he’s at the age of improving, getting more experience, getting closer to his limits. We expect a better Thiem for sure than the one we met last year here,” said Moya.
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