For the last five years or so, Dominic Thiem has been widely touted as Rafael Nadal’s successor at Roland Garros. No one thinks he’s going to win the title 11 times or anything, but with his heavy topspin and his speedy way around the dirt, the Austrian seems like someone who will be ready to go all the way there whenever Rafa decides to hang up his King of Clay crown.
To his credit, Thiem has tried his best to live up that billing, and has made step by step progress toward that goal. He beat Nadal at a smaller clay event in Buenos Aires in 2016, and at bigger clay events in Rome and Madrid in 2018, and Barcelona in 2019. He also staged a five-set epic with the Spaniard at the US Open last year, before falling 7-6 in the fifth set at 2:00 A.M. The only place where Thiem hasn’t made a run at Rafa is Roland Garros itself. In 2017, he won seven games from Nadal in a semifinal defeat. In 2018, managed to eke out nine in a straight-set final-round defeat. At this rate, Thiem will dethrone Rafa in roughly 2040.
Does that mean we can expect Thiem to win 11 games in another one-sided loss on Sunday? He has a few things working for him. He’s coming off the biggest Grand Slam win of his career, over Novak Djokovic, in a match that stretched his nerves to the snapping point. He beat Nadal solidly, in two sets, in the Barcelona final earlier this spring. And he knows what it feels like to play a Roland Garros final.
But Thiem also has two big things working against him.
(1) He was forced to play nearly three sets of intense tennis against Djokovic on Saturday, while Nadal happily watched on TV during his day of rest.
(2) Now has to play Rafa.