French Open 2018

French Open 2018: Rafael Nadal into 11th final, Dominic Thiem into first; can he top Nadal on clay again?

World number one Rafael Nadal will take on Dominic Thiem in the French Open final on Sunday

There was never any doubt, certainly very little doubt, that the 10-time and defending French Open champion and world No1 Rafael Nadal would be there on the last day of action at Roland Garros again.

He arrived in Paris with a remarkable run to the titles in Monte-Carlo, Barcelona, and Rome, which extended his Open record to 56 clay titles. As he progressed to his 27th Major semi-final, his 11th at the French Open, he extended his Roland Garros record to 84 wins—for just two losses—and his run on clay this year alone to 24-1.

He turned 32 during the tournament, won his 900th career match along the way, and should he win his 11th title here, he would retain the No1 ranking ahead of Roger Federer.

As luck would have it, the champion had an easier time of it than the draw suggested, too: a lucky loser in his opener; the 78-ranked Guido Pella in his second, a below-par Richard Gasquet, and then the 70-ranked Maximilian Marterer rather than either scheduled seed. No11 Diego Schwartzman proved a tough nut to crack, ended Nadal’s 37-set streak at Roland Garros, but a rain break was all the champion needed to regroup and return in dominant form.

So there was Nadal, back centre stage come semi-final day, taking on Juan Martin del Potro in only his second-ever French Open semi. But who began the tournament as the second favourite? Many plumped for Dominic Thiem, and with good reason.

The young Austrian thrived on clay, and made the semis in Paris in his last two visits. Eight of his 10 titles had come on clay, including two this year, and this season he led even Nadal in clay-court match-wins, 25 of them. But the most significant one was that single 2018 clay loss by Nadal, in the quarters in Madrid.

Could the No7 seed take one more step in Paris this year and reach his first Major final? And if so, was he the man to deny Nadal? Their meeting last year suggested not—Thiem won only seven games. But then Thiem had another card up his sleeve, a win over Nadal in Rome last year, in straight sets.

First, though, the Austrian had to beat an unexpected opponent in the shape of world No72, Marco Cecchinato, a man who had not won a single Major match until this year’s French Open—and then he went on a giant-killing, crowd-thrilling spree, playing charismatic, all-court attacking tennis with a one-handed backhand and bags of touch.

He came back from two sets down to beat Marius Copil in the first round, and then set about No10 seed Pablo Carreno Busta, No8 David Goffin, and former champion Novak Djokovic, losing a set to all three.

Could he, though, beat the clay credentials of Thiem? Well for two long and tightly contested sets, it looked entirely possible. Cecchinato came under immediate pressure as the tactics of each player were laid on the table. Thiem aimed his backhand high and kicking at the Italian’s and got his opening and a break in the first game.

But then both settled, two love holds, and Cecchinato began to ply his quality drop-shots against a Thiem playing way behind the baseline. The Italian was playing catch-up, but he was trying different shots, using variety, the very tactics that had undermined the rhythmic baseline play of Djokovic.

He had to battle hard in the seventh game—break point, deuces, two double faults—but a couple of bold smashes and he held. Now for the first time, Thiem tightened. He double faulted to offer three break points. He saved them, but Cecchinato forced an error on his fourth break point to level, 4-4, and backed it up with a love hold to lead for the first time. It was short-lived.

Thiem burst into life, firing the kind of penetrating shots that had beaten Nadal in Madrid, and a bullet of a forehand down the line broke, 6-5. He threw in a superb serve and volley on his way to the set, 7-5, in what had been a fast-paced and entertaining 45 minutes.

The fun continued in the second, Cecchinato playing some deft drops and lobs, before thumping a big forehand to save break point and hold. And the level stayed high, though the Italian could make no inroads on Thiem’s serve. Rightly, it headed to a tie-break.

The first half dozen points were all won by winners, Thiem edging 4-2 with a bold serve-and-volley play. Then he punched a huge forehand winner for 5-2. Not to be outdone, Cecchinato won the next with a volley, then Thiem with another forehand missile. Not until the 11th point was there an error, a netted volley on set point from Thiem.

All at once, Cecchinato had levelled, 6-6, and a forehand earned him set point. Still it continued, 9-9, but a rare error from Thiem gave Cecchinato another set point, only for Thiem to pull a drop-shot out of the bag, and it was his turn to serve for the set. He sealed it, after more than an hour, 7-6(10).

Come the third set, though, and the Italian’s legs looked weary: Thiem broke, and the super-fit Austrian grabbed control. He held to love with a perfect lob, 3-0, and although Cecchinato got on the board at 1-5, the end was swift: Thiem reached his first Major final, 6-1, after two and a quarter hours.

Would he now have the chance to score another upset against Nadal? He said:

“I think it’s very important to regenerate now, and have a good practice tomorrow to keep up my good level—and watch the semi-final now to study my next opponent a little bit—then full power on Sunday.”

In the event, he probably knows all that is necessary come Sunday, for indeed it will be Nadal—was it ever in doubt?

Del Potro opened with a superb service game to love, unleashing two huge forehand winners, and looked set to break, 40-0 against Nadal’s serve. But he over-extended his hip, flinched, and Nadal held for 2-1.

The Argentine took anti-inflammatories, and continued to look strong, even on the backhand that had been impeded for so many years by injury, surgery and rehab on his wrists. But Nadal continued to work that wing hard, and threw in drop shots and wide angles to run the strength out of del Potro.

They were tactics that helped Nadal fend off three more break points in the ninth game, and in the blink of an eye, the champion had slotted two forehand winners to work his first break points. The Spaniard defended superbly, landed a ball onto the baseline, and drew the fatal error, a break and the set, 6-4.

For all del Potro’s firepower, Nadal had hit more winners, 15 to 11, though he won the tight set with just one more point, 31-30. But that seemed to unleash the best of Nadal, while del Potro’s belief began steadily to drain.

Now it was the Spaniard’s forehand that pounded through the court as he drew errors from del Potro to break to love, 2-0. Another break, a love hold for 5-0, made six games in a row from 15-40 down in the first set.

Nadal was reading the del Potro power plays and reaching the ball with time to spare. The Argentine held once, but the lop-sided set was done, 6-1, Nadal with 13 winners for four errors—del Potro the reverse.

And the third unfolded in the same vein, a break to love, a hold to love, as Nadal bristled with energy, confident that he had his man. He now had twice the forehand winners of del Potro, 20 of them, and then threw in a sizzling backhand cross court winner to break for 4-1. It was relentless and inevitable, his 6-2 progress to an 11th final in Paris.

So Nadal will indeed contest his 11th French final—and he has never lost at this stage in Paris before. Indeed, he has only lost three of his 27 Major semi-finals, the most recent, it so happens, in the semis of the 2009 US Open against del Potro.

That, then, is the scale of the task facing Thiem come Sunday. But if anyone can, it may be the only man to beat Nadal on clay in the last two years—and Thiem has done it twice. Should he succeed, it will take him into elite company: He would join Marin Cilic as the player not named Nadal, Djokovic, Federer, Andy Murray or Stan Wawrinka to win a Major since del Potro in 2009.

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