“I shall go and tell the indestructible man that someone plans to murder him.”
– Watchmen by Alan Moore
Unlike Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan, Rafael Nadal does not give off a blue glow and most definitely wears clothes during office hours. However, on the red clay of Paris, the Majorcan can be just as indestructible as his graphic novel counterpart.
Some may think an argument for Dominic Thiem defeating a player who has won all ten French Open finals in which he has participated is a bit pointless. Maybe or maybe not.
Let’s start with the case against the Austrian shocking the greatest male clay court player of all time.
With victory over Juan Martin del Potro in Friday’s semi-final, Nadal increased his winning record at Roland Garros to an obscene 85-2. That’s right, the second figure is two!
The only men to have toppled the left-hander since his tournament debut 13 years ago are Robin Soderling (2009) and Novak Djokovic (2015). In 2016, Nadal withdrew before his third round match with an injured wrist.
The 32-year-old has played 23 grand slam finals in his illustrious career and left with the trophy on 16 occasions. He has triumphed in six of his last eight major finals.
Ominously for Thiem, the only men to have beaten the Spaniard in a major final are Roger Federer (three times), Novak Djokovic (also three) and Stan Wawrinka.
More ominously for Thiem, Nadal’s four-set loss to Wawrinka in the 2014 Australian Open final is the only time that he has fallen to a first-time finalist. And he was injured in that one.
In terms of French Open finals, nobody has beaten Nadal or taken him to five sets. Four players have lost in straight sets. On one of those occasions in 2008, poor Roger only grabbed four games in a horrendously one-sided affair.
What will give the Austrian some hope is the fact that an opponent has stolen a set from the Majorcan in the final on six occasions. Those six times involved two legendary players and their first names begin with R and N.
Will a D be added to the list?
The advantage for Thiem over the vast majority of players in world tennis is that he knows that he can beat Nadal on clay. He has defeated the 32-year-old three times on the dirt and did it as recently as a month ago.
At May’s Madrid Open, a Masters 1000 event and one of the most prestigious events in the clay season, Thiem knocked Nadal out of the quarter-finals with an impressive 7-5 6-3 scoreline.
The Austrian’s successful strategy involved breaking down Nadal’s backhand with crosscourt strokes and then finishing the point with an explosive forehand. Thiem ended the match with 22 forehand winners, most of them targeted at the forehand side of the 16-time major winner.
The defending champion was frazzled throughout the contest and contributed to his own demise with unforced errors and double faults at unfortunate times. Was Nadal subpar or did Thiem force him to be?
If Thiem is to pull off one of the great achievements of the Open Era and dethrone the King of Clay from his Chatrier castle, he’ll have to do a number of things.
The 24-year-old must hold serve early in the first set and hang with Nadal. As we have seen in the quarters and semis, the defending champion is most vulnerable at the opening.
Diego Schwartzman grabbed the first set over Nadal and was on top before the first rain delay arrived. On Friday, Juan Martin del Potro could and probably should have taken the first set. The match may have developed differently if he had.
As in Madrid, Thiem must look to boss rallies from the baseline whenever possible and take advantage if the Spaniard drops the ball short.
If ten minutes in, we see the King’s challenger scrambling far behind the baseline as balls rear up on his single-handed backhand…well, you’ve seen that story before haven’t you?
If Nadal takes the first set, comfortably or after a scrap, he is likely to lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires for an 11th time after three sets of play. The Majorcan will probably still win even if Thiem nabs the opening set.
However, if the Austrian wrests the first two sets from a stressed Spaniard, we may be in for an iconic performance in tennis lore.