When it was all over, Dominic Thiem looked like a boxer exhausted from missing too many punches.
It was the ultimate test for him, playing Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros. And Thiem, who had won 15 straight sets enroute to the semi-final, came out swinging, wildly. When he couldn’t hit through Nadal, a task bordering on impossible, he didn’t quite have the patience to buckle down and work his way out of the jam he was getting himself into.
Thiem had blown his rivals off court earlier in the tournament with his whipping forehand—which zips at an average speed of 86 mph. But no one absorbs that crunching power better than Nadal. He is the high priest of Paris because he has the serenity of a monk. Nadal will take punches all day, but still stay on his feet and never quite let you win. But his legendary capacity “to suffer” on a tennis court wasn’t quite tested by Thiem.
The pair traded breaks in the first two games of the match, but with Thiem stacking up the unforced errors he kept falling behind. Nadal, cool, collected, unhurried on clay as usual, ran away a 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 winner in just over two hours.
“It's nice to be in the semis again, but now I'm really disappointed because I just couldn't play the way I wanted to,” Thiem said. “I don't know why yet, so I have to find some reasons. It was a good clay-court season, but a very bad ending for me.”
After the promise of the first five rounds, the Austrian – at 23 the only men’s semi-finalist under 30 this year—faded out spectacularly. Such is Nadal’s aura on the red dirt that Thiem kept going for a little too much a little too long. He kept going for the lines, and missing them by inches. By the end of the first set, his groundstrokes, which he had lasered down with precision against others, including defending champion Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinal, had lost their range. He finished with 34 unforced errors and 21 winners.
Nadal’s baseline play, meanwhile, was solid and assured. His forehand, which had been picked on in the last two season, has been firing again this clay season, sending the ball with a vicious 3000-rpm spin. His employed the backhand down the line effectively to throw Thiem off. But it was Nadal’s serve that has been his surprise weapon this season. With new coach Carlos Moya, he had worked on varying it a lot more. On Friday, Nadal conceded only one of the eight break point opportunities.
So, Nadal has reached the final step in his pursuit for La Decima having lost only 29 games. Up next for him will Stanislas Wawrinka, who also has a reputation of bludgeoning the ball.
“It's true that when he hits hard, he hits really hard," Nadal said, looking ahead to Sunday’s final. "Stopping him can be difficult. I do not want him to play his game, which means I need to make sure I don't let him be in that position where he can hit hard.”
That awesome hitting was once again on display in his semi-final against Andy Murray. It looked like the Scot, who hasn’t had an easy reign at the top of the rankings, would fight through his problems and make it to his second successive French Open final when he went two sets to one up over Wawrinka.
But the Swiss star only grew in strength as the match wore on. He defeated Murray 6-7 (6), 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (3), 6-1 in a match that lasted four hours and 34 minutes. Even though the first seed put up an admirable defence, Wawrinka broke him down with his relentless shot-making. The tight fourth set, finished in the tie-break, with the Swiss gunning down a forehand, one of his 87 winners on the day. With Murray struggling to cope with the challenge physically, the Swiss ran away with the fifth set.
Wawrinka’s talent had never been in doubt, but coach Magnus Norman has translated that to winning Grand Slams. The Swede, who himself is a former French Open finalist, is known to have extended Wawrinka’s practice sessions to over four hours, specifically for the big moments in the majors. That work ethic paid off against Murray, as he never quite let the intensity up. Stanimal, alright. He has emerged as one of the best big-match players, winning three Grand Slams in the last three years.
It will help to have Norman in his corner in the final as well. Norman was Robin Soderling’s coach when the Swede defeated Nadal in 2009, snapping up his unbeaten run at Roland Garros that had already brought him four titles. On paper, he knows how to bring down Nadal even on clay.
Wawrinka had beaten Nadal to win his first Slam at the 2014 Australian Open. But with Nadal zoned into clay-court nirvana yet again, it will be a mighty task to dislodge him.
“When you play Rafa in the French Open, you're never the favourite," Wawrinka said on Friday. “If you lose, it's almost normal. But, of course, you don't want to lose a Grand Slam final, do you?”
He hasn’t. The Swiss has won all the three finals he has been in. And he has been the underdog in every one of them. But then Nadal has never lost a French Open final either.
Published Date: Jun 10, 2017 11:54 am | Updated Date: Jun 10, 2017 12:30 pm