PARIS — How do you solve a problem like Rafael Nadal, especially on the clay courts of Roland Garros? It is the question facing Dominic Thiem as the Austrian prepares for Sunday’s men’s final at the 2019 French Open. The good news is that it’s a question he asked himself 12 months ago; the not-so-good news is that he failed to answer it.
Only two men have beaten Nadal at Roland Garros since he first walked through the gates in 2005. Robin Soderling managed it in 2009, when Nadal’s knees were giving him trouble, and Novak Djokovic did it in 2015. Nadal has won the title an incredible, almost ludicrous 11 times, and is the big favorite to make it 12.
“Always, to play Rafa here on this court, is always the ultimate challenge, one of the toughest challenges in sports in general,” Thiem said Saturday after his five-set, two-day semifinal win over Novak Djokovic. “I played a really good match against him in Barcelona (beating Nadal in straight sets in the semifinals). It was six weeks ago. So of course I try to do similar, even though it’s way tougher to play him here. But I try to keep all the positive emotions I’m having from this amazing match today, and go with a really positive mind into the match tomorrow, and then we’ll see.”
When there’s a net across the court, there’s a chance. And perhaps Thiem has more chance than most. His win in Barcelona was his fourth on clay over Nadal; only Djokovic (seven) has won more. Thiem knows how to do it.
The problem, though, is that this is Court Philippe Chatrier, a court with run-backs so deep and so much room at the sides that Nadal, more than anyone, has been able to run down so many balls. At times, it seems impossible to hit through him.
Thiem has the power, but he’ll need a game plan. And that’s where his switch in coaches from Gunter Bresnik, the former coach of Boris Becker who guided Thiem for 15 years, could be key. In February, Thiem hired Nicolas Massu, the Chilean who won the singles and doubles gold medals at the 2004 Olympics, and the pair gelled immediately. Thiem won his first Masters 1000 title at Indian Wells, on hard courts, in March and picked up his second title of the year in Barcelona soon after.
Ask the Austrian media who follow Thiem week in, week out throughout the season, and they will tell you that since his split from Bresnik, he seems to be playing with more freedom, expressing himself more on the court. In the past fortnight, he has dealt patiently with difficult situations, especially the delay against Djokovic, and come out the other side, still smiling.
In an interview at the Mutua Madrid Open last month, Thiem told ESPN.com that he believes he is a better player than he was 12 months ago, better equipped to handle Nadal. On paper, his game should stack up well — strong enough on the backhand to target the space Nadal leaves on the forehand side, good enough on serve to force the Spaniard back.
With Nadal having won Rome coming into Roland Garros and with an extra day’s rest having completed his semifinal against Roger Federer on Friday, it will probably take a near-perfect performance from Thiem to even have a chance Sunday. There can be no dips, no drop in focus or concentration. The good thing is he knows what to expect being in the final; the even better thing is that he is playing great tennis.
“It’s an unbelievable opportunity,” Thiem said Saturday. “I said last year that I hope to get another chance in a Grand Slam final and hope to do better then, so tomorrow there is the chance. I’m feeling fine. I’m full of adrenaline, of course, still from today’s match, and also I will have that tomorrow. So I’m not going to be tired. I’m ready to leave all or everything what I have out on the court tomorrow.”
He’ll need it, and then some. But at least he’s given himself the chance.