Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem have taken markedly different paths this fortnight, but find themselves in the same place. After weathering swirling winds, flying umbrellas and stiff challenges from the world’s best players, the second-seeded Spaniard and fourth-seeded Austrian meet on Sunday for the Roland Garros title.
The 25-year-old Thiem is aware of the challenge he faces in toppling the greatest clay-court player of all time in Court Philippe-Chatrier. But having reached the final here last year, he won’t be content with simply making it to another championship match.
“To play Rafa here on this court is always the ultimate challenge, one of the toughest challenges in sports,” said Thiem. “I think it’s really important that I go into the match with the belief to win. That’s the most important thing. It’s a big dream for me to win this match, to win this title.”
Eleven-time champion Nadal leads his FedEx ATP Head2Head rivalry with Thiem 8-4, but the Austrian has scored a clay-court win over Nadal each of the past four years, including their most recent meeting this April in the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell semi-finals. He’s the only player in that time to defeat the Spaniard more than once on this surface and joins Novak Djokovic as the only players with at least four clay-court victories over Nadal.
It’s a different story at Roland Garros, though. Nadal has swept all three matches and nine sets they’ve played here, including last year’s final. Although the second seed has history on his side, he’s approaching tomorrow’s battle with a clean slate
“In a final like this one, the opponent is always at a very high level, but that’s the rule of sports. That’s why this sport is even more interesting,” said Nadal. “I think that I’m confident in myself. If I’m not able to execute my game plan, it’s going to be complicated. But if I play well, and I have played well up to now, I’ve got all my chances. But it’s always a match and anything can happen.”
Nadal’s eye-raising credentials at the second major of the year are well-documented. He holds a staggering 92-2 record here and has won the title in 11 of his past 14 appearances. The Spaniard gets even more dangerous at the business end at this event. His Grand Slam final record is a combined 6-8 at the other three majors, but a flawless 11-0 in Paris.
It was hardly a guarantee that Nadal would make it back to the final Sunday this year. He started his clay-court season with three consecutive semi-final losses, falling to Fabio Fognini at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters, Thiem in Barcelona and Stefanos Tsitsipas at the Mutua Madrid Open. Critics were quick to wonder if the Spaniard’s reign of dominance on clay had come to end.
The Spaniard silenced his doubters over the past four weeks. He defeated Djokovic for his 34th ATP Masters 1000 title at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia and has been in dominant form this fortnight. Nadal dropped a set in his third-round win over David Goffin, but lost an average of seven games in his other five matches.
“Being in the final of Roland Garros again means a lot and especially coming back from a tough situation with all the injuries that I had,” said Nadal. “Being able to recover the level that I had the past couple of weeks is something that I am very proud of. I’m just focused on keeping going and doing my thing well.”
Although Thiem took the title in Barcelona (d. Medvedev), early exits in Monte-Carlo and Rome put a question mark on whether he’d bring his top form to Paris. He struggled early in the tournament, dropping sets in each of his first three matches.
But Thiem found a new gear in the second week. He posted convincing scorelines over Gael Monfils and Karen Khachanov before his five-set semi-final victory over Djokovic that spanned two days. Saturday’s win made Thiem the first Austrian player to reach multiple Grand Slam finals.
Thiem has been quick to reject suggestions that fitness could play a factor in Sunday’s match. Thiem has spent 15 hours and 25 minutes on court this fortnight, compared to 13 hours and 24 minutes on Nadal, and will compete for the fourth straight day on Sunday. But with a chance at his first Grand Slam title on the line, he’s prepared for one last push.
“I’m feeling fine. I’m full of adrenaline from today’s match and will have that tomorrow,” said Thiem. “I’m not going to be tired. It’s all going to come after the tournament. I’m ready to leave everything that I have out on the court tomorrow.”