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.
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.
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.”