Rafael Nadal's French Open Is A Confrontation With His Only Real Threat

Illustration for article titled Rafael Nadal's French Open Is A Confrontation With His Only Real Threat
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Dominic Thiem and Rafael Nadal will play each other in the French Open final on Sunday. Only one outcome has ever resulted from a French Open final involving Rafa. For a reality check, pinch yourself and say aloud, “Rafael Nadal has won 10 French Opens.” There is only the slimmest chance that Thiem will topple that clay empire—but it appears more possible for Thiem than it would be for anyone else.


Thiem, playing an almost disconcertingly busy schedule this spring clay season, went 18-4. The four aren’t so important right now, except to note that one was Rafa in straights. Even the 17 of those 18 wins aren’t so relevant to the argument at hand. What’s really important is that final one: a defeat of Rafa himself, which is far more than anyone else can claim. For two straight seasons, Thiem has been the only man to defeat Nadal on clay. He is the sole disruptor of two otherwise pristine and uninterrupted runs from Monte Carlo to Paris. Nadal had a 24-1 clay season in 2017 and thus far a 25-1 season in 2018. Thiem is to blame for those two blips.

In between those two losses, of course, Nadal set unprecedented records. He strung together 50 straight sets on clay, a new tour high for any single surface. In fact he even beat Thiem within that stretch, twice, with bagel-set, confidence-shredding ease both times. But the Austrian was still the bookend on either side of that streak. Eyes resolutely closed, whomping his groundstrokes, Thiem peeked in as if to say, Sure, no one else can stop you, but you’re not such hot shit after all. All those Roland Garros titles are mine. Or will be. Maybe not right now, but definitely soon, or, at least, at some indeterminate date in the future and, well, only if you let me have them, of course, please sir?

To be totally fair, Dominic Thiem, who will enter his first Grand Slam final on Sunday, does appear destined for a handful of titles in Paris at some point. Based on the weak crop of talent, Thiem’s present record of success, and Rafa’s ripe age of 32, those titles are probably coming one way or another. They are his to inherit. How soon that happens is almost purely a function of Nadal’s joint health. Nadal is no longer quite the juggernaut he once was, in the era of long locks and long shorts. But you have to squint pretty hard for any signs of flagging, in terms of the score lines. Last year, we kept a body count at Roland Garros for Nadal because the obliterations were so pure. This year, the man is just a shade more vulnerable—which is to say, one guy very memorably took a set off him, and two separate guys even managed to get to a whole tiebreak. Last year, Nadal only lost 35 games at the whole tournament. This year, he has let 55 games slip, and he still has the final to play. Thiem can take some heart in those figures.

There is one final wrinkle, though. Thiem, despite having beaten Nadal three of his nine tries on clay, has never pulled it off in a best-of-five format, where Nadal is for all practical purposes invincible. The wild, shotgun strategy that Thiem must execute to pull off the upset invites too much variance and is much harder to sustain over a longer format. At Roland Garros, Nadal’s legs will almost always last longer than your intrepid gameplan will, and for evidence, just look at 85-2. That’s Nadal’s record in best-of-five on clay at this tournament. It’s a 98 percent win rate. It’s unholy. If Thiem unseats the master on Sunday, he will have accomplished one of the most improbable feats in all of sports.