French Open 2019: Dominic Thiem faces uphill task in summit clash againt Rafael Nadal's custom-built claycourt expertise

When Dominic Thiem went up two match points against Novak Djokovic at 5-3 in the fifth set of their semi-final, he suddenly found the need to put a lot of faith in his backhand slice. At 40-15 he tried hitting a short slice with extreme underspin, and at 40-30 he tried one again with extreme depth. He missed them both, and was eventually broken.

A mental error like that — or was it tentativeness? — would have been deeply scarring for most players, and for a while, it seemed to have taken all the fight out of Thiem too. And yet he went up another match point with Djokovic serving at 5-6, and to everyone’s amazement, he tried the slice again.

 French Open 2019: Dominic Thiem faces uphill task in summit clash againt Rafael Nadals custom-built claycourt expertise

Dominic Thiem rejoices his triumph over Novak Djokovic in French Open 2019 semi-final. Reuters

Except this time, he hit it right into the corner, and forced a short backhand from the Serb. With the ball sitting up, Thiem threw caution to the wind and unleashed a mighty crosscourt forehand winner. In a matter of 15 minutes, he had turned a fatal error into a decisive move that checkmated Djokovic, and his reward was the biggest win of his career.

Will the slice help Thiem in the final against Rafael Nadal? History would suggest not; Nadal usually eats soft shots to his forehand for breakfast. But the Thiem slice is one of the most improved shots in the world right now, and his unshakeable confidence in it could possibly pose a new question or two of Nadal.

It goes without saying that Thiem will have to do a lot of other new things if he hopes to stand a chance in the summit clash. He may have won four of his 12 matches against Nadal, but at Roland Garros, he has never taken a set. In fact, Thiem has never even taken more than nine games; every one of their contests in Paris has been a lop-sided drubbing.

The last time the two met at Roland Garros, in last year’s final, Thiem was competitive for a set. But once Nadal got the break with Thiem serving at 4-5, the writing was on the wall for the Austrian; he never seriously challenged the Spaniard after that.

Thiem’s unique brand of full-tilt tennis is thrilling to watch when it comes off, and it has thrilled the spectators in Paris for four years running now. But what happens when it doesn’t come off? As we found out in that 4-5 game, and in his two semi-finals before that, whatever happens is not good for Thiem. His inability to take a step back and work out an alternative solution plays right into the hands of his opponent; and if that opponent is Nadal, then a demoralising defeat is always on the cards.

Thiem’s one-handed backhand is not an obvious weakness against Nadal the way Roger Federer’s is, but there are only so many rippers he can unleash when he is repeatedly made to hit the ball from shoulder height. Generating point-ending power off his backhand is not a problem for Thiem; doing that over and over again is the bigger headache, and the thing that eventually leads to errors.

But now, for what seems like the first time ever, Thiem actually does have an alternative that he can rely on. With a slice that has more bite and venom than it did in his matches against Nadal the last two years, Thiem could possibly change the pattern of the rallies from the backhand side and get enough time to go around and hit a forehand. But the margin for error with the slice will be extremely low; anything slightly too short or too floating, and Nadal will be all over it.

Nadal has been all over all of his opponents lately, and that should probably worry Thiem more than anything to do with his own game. We’ve known for years now that when Nadal is at his best on clay, he is nearly unbeatable. And after the hiccup against David Goffin in the third round, Nadal has been at his best this tournament; the clinical wins over Kei Nishikori and Roger Federer were awe-inspiring reminders of just how devastating his full-strength claycourt game can be.

As if Nadal needed any more help, he also has the advantage of fortuitous scheduling this time around. He had two days of rest for his semi-final, and has had one full day off before the final. Thiem, on the other hand, will have no rest day before the final, despite having played four days straight due to the rain interventions. His semi-final against Djokovic was both long and exhausting, and yet he will have to recover from that and try to defeat Rafael freaking Nadal on clay (which is pretty much the toughest challenge in the sport) in less than 24 hours.

How does the man himself feel about that? A lot less outraged than Twitter-verse, that’s for sure. “I think it’s fine,” Thiem said when asked about it. “I mean, it’s not the first time that that happened in tennis, and it’s not going to be the last time. That’s our sport. I mean, we are used to it, that we never know when we supposed to have a day off, and then, because of rain or other things, we don’t have. So it’s okay, I think.”

That’s a champion’s attitude if ever there was one. And to be honest, Thiem has been displaying a champion’s attitude for years now. He has done all the hard work, made all the necessary changes to his game, taken all the tough losses on the chin, made peace with his misfortune of playing in the same era as Nadal and Djokovic, and turned around and come knocking on the door one more time. Surely he has done enough to turn that champion’s attitude into a champion’s trophy?

If only Nadal saw things the same way. The World No 2 hasn’t had the happiest of seasons so far, with a crushing loss to Djokovic in Melbourne being followed by a string of semi-final losses on his beloved clay. He is playing for redemption now, and that is showing in his game; that forehand is dive-bombing all over the court again, the movement is as belief-defying as ever, and his famed ability to get one extra ball back is eliciting errors out of the best of them.

Thiem can try using the slice, and try blasting the cover off the ball with his forehand. It likely won’t be enough.

Prediction: Nadal to win in four sets.

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Updated Date: Jun 09, 2019 14:18:25 IST