French Open 2018: King of Clay Rafael Nadal squares off against heir-apparent Dominic Thiem in Roland Garros title showdown

The year 2005 holds great significance in French Open history. It was the year a muscular teenager by the name of Rafael Nadal first took to the clay courts of Paris, and left it with a first Grand Slam title. It was an emergence that rendered each and every competitor henceforth as a mere pretender to the clay empire the Spaniard meticulously built for himself.

Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem at the French Open in Paris. Agencies

Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem at the French Open in Paris. Agencies

In the 13 editions that went by, Nadal won 10. And as Sunday approaches, the undisputed ‘King of Clay’ is in good sight for an 11th crown at Roland Garros – his 17th major title overall. In Sunday’s final of the French Open, the 32-year-old will take on his supposed successor on clay.

For years, clay-court specialist Dominic Thiem has been pipped as Nadal’s heir-apparent. The strapping 6-foot-1 Austrian ranked No 8 in the world, not many in the game have the ability to strike the ball as heavy as he can. In the last two years, he’s reached successive French Open semi-finals, but managed to go one better this term and will play in his first ever Grand Slam final.

Yet unlike the other hopefuls who’ve had the misfortune of crossing paths against Nadal on the red dirt of Roland Garros (till date, Nadal holds an astounding 81-2 win-loss record at this major), Thiem is no pushover.

And he proved that recently at the Madrid Masters when he pulled off a surprise win against the surging Spaniard in a straight-sets win. It was a victory that put an end to Nadal’s 21-match winning run on clay, even ending his streak of 50 consecutive sets won. Incidentally, Thiem was also the last person to beat Nadal on clay, back at the Rome Masters of 2017.

In the Spanish capital though, the pair were meeting for the second time in the space of a few weeks. Prior to that clash, Nadal steamrolled past the 24-year-old at Monte Carlo, only to find a totally different player when they met again.

In Madrid, where Thiem would eventually go on to finish as finalist, he had a completely different approach. He positioned himself on the baseline, hitting his returns early to minimise Nadal’s reaction time. There was an urgency to his play that threw Nadal off guard.

“I haven't read the ball good enough to be able to handle the situation, to put him in places where he didn't feel comfortable to play,” Nadal had said. “If you don't strike the first balls good enough, it's very difficult to step into the game because his balls come really heavy.”

While Nadal’s vicious top-spin forehand has been elevated to tennis folklore, the Austrian’s groundstrokes are equally devastating. And in that quarter-final in Madrid, each thump of the tennis ball was hit with purpose.

“The best was my groundstrokes,” said Thiem. “They were very aggressive. I think I really hurt him with them. At the same time, they were pretty safe. I didn't make too many stupid errors. That was important.”

In all the years that Nadal has played on clay, he’s dictated the tempo and the outcome itself. Thiem though puts greater emphasis on his first serve just as Nadal’s own service game dwindled. And then the groundstrokes kicked in.

“If I play normal (game) against him, I lose probably,” the Austrian said. “I have to play some special shots. I played today some more forehands down the line. I played a little more aggressive, and it worked out very, very well, obviously.”

The two share a 1-1 record so far this season, but Nadal leads 6-3 overall (they’ve played all their previous matches on clay).

In Paris, Nadal has progressed to his 11th final after dropping serve just once, in his quarter-final against Argentine Diego Schwartzman. Thiem has been a touch less devastating, managing to win only three of his six matches in straights sets – including the quarter-final over second seed and NextGen star Alexander Zverev. But as the past fortnight has progressed, the Austrian has been growing in confidence, and in stature.

And now he will meet Nadal in the final.

In his trophy-laden 17-year career, the World No 1 has won titles on all surfaces. But his success has been most prominent when he’s played on clay. Everything, including his tennis gear, speaks of that raging legacy on the red dirt. Even his racquet model is named La Decima (for his 10 French Open titles).

In Thiem’s case, eight of his 10 ATP titles have come on clay. But now he has a maiden final at a major, and a chance to be the first Austrian since Thomas Muster (French Open 1995) to win a Slam. When the two walk out to the Philippe-Chatrier on Sunday, Thiem will be the underdog, but a worthy challenger.

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Updated Date: Jun 10, 2018 18:14:17 IST

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