French Open Men's Final Preview: Rafael Nadal vs. Dominic Thiem

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Dominic Thiem beat Rafael Nadal when the two met in Madrid. (AP)

PARIS—This is the Roland Garros men’s final many of us have been waiting to see. On one side we have the 32-year-old Nadal, the 10-time champion and greatest ever on clay. On the other we have the 24-year-old Thiem, the player who has been pegged for years as a possible successor to Rafa at Roland Garros—not that anyone thinks that he’s going to win 10 of them, but two or three would seem to be within reach. While Nadal’s presence in the final will be nothing new, it will be the first time we’ve seen him play one against a member of the ATP’s younger generation.

More important, Rafa will be facing a player who has beaten him on clay three times—once in 2016 in Buenos Aires, once in 2017 in Rome, and once this spring in Madrid. That last match was also the last time they’ve played. Of course, Nadal has beaten Thiem six times on dirt (they’ve never played on any other surface), and he has won both of their previous meetings at the French Open in straight sets. 

TenniStory: The Rafa Nadal Academy in Mallorca, Spain

Thiem can hit through the court for winners with either ground stroke, he can use his forehand to pound the ball into Nadal’s backhand, and he can take advantage of Rafa’s deep court position with drop shots. But as lethal as Thiem’s backhand can be, the fact that he hits it with one hand won’t help him. Thiem himself talked yesterday about the trouble that high balls give single-handed backhands. Was he already dreading Rafa’s famous high-kicking crosscourt forehands?

We know Thiem can take the rallies to Rafa on clay. But can he push him around in Chatrier, in the Roland Garros final, over best-of-five sets? Thiem says that all of those factors will make this match a very different animal from the ones he won over Rafa in other places, and will make Nadal the obvious favorite. 

He’s right. This is a match we want to see, and one that could be very competitive and entertaining. But it’s also one that can only be predicted one way. The most important stat has nothing to do with Thiem; it has to do with Rafa’s record in French Open finals. He’s 10-0. Winner: Nadal


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