Towards the tail end of the clay season, even this skeptic had cast aside old doubts: 23-year-old Dominic Thiem is the future. Particularly on the dirt. But as of right now, the future still feels impossibly far away. Rafael Nadal, 31 years old and the best clay court tennis player past and present, confronted the current second-best, the No. 6 seed who hadn’t dropped a set all tournament and the only one to beat him on clay this year. Rafa reduced him to pink slime undistinguishable from all the others, 6-4, 6-3, 6-0. By the ending bagel, it was more mercy-killing than Grand Slam semifinal.
Nadal devoured his opponent’s high-kicking second serve, holding Thiem to a sad 37 percent win rate on those points. To win even the average rally, Thiem had to be his aggressive best, the way he was in Rome. He came out swinging his usual death blows. Sustaining that style of play in a best-of-five is a very difficult, maybe physically untenable proposition. It failed today. The takeaway is not that he should have played Rafa with a different tactic; it’s that it’s inconceivably hard to beat Rafa here. Don’t feel too bad. Only two people have ever done it, and you wrecked one of them in the quarterfinals.
Nadal heads into Sunday’s final with a lifetime 78-2 record at the French Open. Already this is one of the most outrageous, sustained feats in any sport; one more win, and a 10th title, is not decadent fantasy, but the likely outcome. (Sorry, Stan.) Dominic Thiem will get his Roland Garros title one day, but he’ll need to be patient and wait out the GOAT’s knees and wrists.