Another French Open final, another chapter in the history books waits to be rewritten. Rafael Nadal will face Dominic Thiem tomorrow in his 11th French Open final.
And just in case the 24-year-old Austrian, pictured, was feeling confident – he claims that he has a plan to beat the world No 1 – it is worth mentioning that Nadal has never lost a Roland Garros final. He has only lost twice in 14 years in Paris (he pulled out injured in 2016). By contrast, this is Thiem’s first major final.
Then there is Nadal’s performance of yesterday to consider: he pummelled Juan Martin Del Potro for most of the three sets. When the Argentine had chances in the first – when Nadal’s serve was stuttering – he either watched helplessly as they whisked away from him or missed with his normally trusty forehand. But Nadal puts everyone under that sort of pressure.
Del Potro had admitted before the match that the first set would be key: if he was to stand a chance against the King of Roland Garros, he had to get an early lead and then keep the pedal to the metal until the last ball. Three clay court losses out of three and only five wins in 14 attempts overall had taught him that.
The good news (before he stepped on court, that is) was that the huge man from Tandil was feeling fit. A groin injury picked up at the Italian Open a couple of weeks before the start of the French Open had settled down well and he felt ready for the fight.
But then only 16 minutes into the opening set, Del Potro was wrong-footed by another thumping Nadal forehand and, turning sharply to try to lunge at the ball, the Argentine pulled up in pain. Clutching his left hip, it looked as if he had reinjured the same, torn groin muscle. As he turned to his box, the look on his face was one of obvious pain but also resignation: he would not give in but he knew his chance had gone.
He kept fighting, he had six break-point chances in the first set but all of them evaporated in the heat. Nadal was accelerating towards the final and once the first set was over, Del Potro was never going to catch him. “It was almost impossible to beat him,” Del Potro said. “Rafa is playing every point better from the beginning until the last point of the match, and his intensity grows during the match, and it’s tough to be there all the time. I couldn’t play my best because of him. His game is too good for me.”
Nadal ran Del Potro from corner to corner and then drop-shotted him. The gentle man Nadal did exactly what the sadist ordered against a man with a soft backhand and sore leg: make him run and try not to give him a sniff of a forehand.
After two hours and 14 minutes, the tactic had earned the ten-time champion a place in the final. “It was a good second and third set for me, of course, and a good hold in the first,” Nadal said. “Sunday is the day to give my best, is the day to increase even a little bit more the level.
“If I play well [in the final], I normally have my chances. If I don’t play well, it will be almost impossible, because I play against a player that he’s going to play well. He’s a player that will be a big challenge.
“So what I have to do is play my best. If I play my best, I believe that I can have my chance.”
Now it is up to Thiem to do the unthinkable and stop Nadal from lifting Undecimo (the 11th) – and good luck with that. Thiem, the world No 8, reached his first major final with a straight-sets though anything but straightforward win over Marco Cecchinato, the unseeded giant killer from Italy, 7-5, 7-6, 6-1.
Nadal holds a 6-3 winning record over the Austrian but it was Thiem who won their last match, clumping the world No 1 in straight sets in the Madrid quarter-finals. This, though, is very different: this is Nadal’s second home and this is the first time Thiem has been invited to visit on the final Sunday.
Undecimo awaits and it is hard to imagine that anyone or anything can stop Nadal from making it his.