In youthful Dominic Thiem, Rafael Nadal faces a new French Open challenge

Paris: On his favourite tennis court, Rafael Nadal was struggling on Friday. He looked hesitant and edgy, as if he might not be able to finish what he started.

But this had nothing to do with winning or losing his French Open semi-final against Juan Martin del Potro, whom Nadal had just manhandled, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2, to earn a spot in the final against Dominic Thiem.

This was about Nadal, the pride of Spain, trying to do his post-match interview in French.
He stopped short for a long moment, searching for his words, but then nodded his head with renewed determination and reeled off the rest of the response.

‘‘I’m very happy to return to the final at Roland Garros,’’ he said. ‘‘For me, it’s incredible.’’

For everyone else, however, it has become as normal as the Seine flowing under the Pont des Arts. Nadal is a part of the Paris landscape now; his success at Roland Garros is a rite of spring.

Victory with punch: Rafael Nadal advances to another French Open decider.

Victory with punch: Rafael Nadal advances to another French Open decider.

The struggle to answer in French on Friday – he remains much more comfortable in English as a second language – looked a lot more nerve-racking than some of his matches.

But Nadal, 32, is nothing if not a hard worker who loves a challenge, and even if winning another French Open would hardly be a novelty, that should not diminish the achievement.

‘‘He is, for me, the best competitor I ever saw in any sport, and I watch sport a lot for many, many years,’’ said Gunter Bresnik, Thiem’s 57-year-old coach. ‘‘Nadal’s capable of keeping this very aggressive, high-intensity level over an unbelievably long period of time. And he practices that way too. There is no difference between practices and matches. I always hear from players that in a match they will do it differently, but if you don’t practice that way, you are not going to do it in the heat of the battle. And Nadal has been doing it for years and years and years.’’

Nadal will be chasing his 11th singles title on Sunday night (AEST), if rain does not push the final to next week. A victory over Thiem would allow him to equal Margaret Court’s career record of 11 singles titles at a single major tournament.

But this year’s final is already different to any of Nadal’s previous 10 in Paris or any of his 13 other grand slam finals.

He is at last facing someone from a younger tennis generation instead of contemporaries like Novak Djokovic, 31, or an elder like Roger Federer, who will turn 37 in August.

The seventh-seeded Thiem, a 24-year-old Austrian, is, along with Alexander Zverev, one of the leaders of the new wave in men’s tennis. Of players under 29, only Thiem and Milos Raonic have reached major singles finals: Raonic lost in the 2016 Wimbledon final to Andy Murray.

Rafael Nadal.

Rafael Nadal.

If Thiem wins, he will be the youngest man to win at Roland Garros since Nadal won at 24 in 2010.

He has proved that he is a major threat to Nadal in best-of-three-set matches on clay, beating him three times, most recently in straight sets in the quarter-finals of the Masters 1000 event in Madrid this year.

‘‘For sure, I can take some things off that,’’ Thiem said.

‘‘If I want to beat him, I have to play that way like I did in Rome and in Madrid. But I’m also aware that here it’s tougher. He likes the conditions more here than in Madrid, for sure.’’

Thiem has yet to prove that he can stay with Nadal in a best-of-five-set match, losing in the second round of the French Open in 2014, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3, and again in the French Open semi-finals last year by the lopsided and deflating score of 6-3, 6-4, 6-0, after plenty of pre-match build-up.

Now Thiem is back for another attempt after navigating a draw that included 19th-seeded Kei Nishikori, the second-seeded Zverev and on Friday, the unseeded Italian surprise Marco Cecchinato in a semi-final that Thiem won, 7-5, 7-6 (10), 6-1, after saving three set points in the second-set tiebreaker.

‘‘He’s a big favourite against anybody,’’ Thiem said of Nadal. ‘‘Still, I know how to play against him. I have a plan.’’

Most men who face Nadal have a plan. The problem is executing it. Nadal is an astounding 85-2 at Roland Garros, with his only defeats coming against Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009 and against Djokovic in the quarter-finals in 2015.

The conventional wisdom is that the only way to prevail is to take time away from him: to attack at the first decent opportunity before Nadal strikes first or locks his opponent into a geometric inferno by controlling the baseline exchanges with his whipping forehand and excellent two-handed backhand.

Thiem does indeed have punching power: both with his serve and his groundstrokes, with the forehand doing most of the damage. But he is also most comfortable positioning himself deep behind the baseline, which allows Nadal more time to get organised and react. Thiem will have to produce tremendous quality and depth for hours to have a chance to join Soderling and Djokovic’s exclusive club.

‘‘Nadal, in Paris, best-of-five, is still half a class above Dominic, half a level too good,’’ said Bresnik, who has coached Thiem since the Austrian was nine. With that in mind, Bresnik said he did not anticipate a victory for his pupil this year. ‘‘That does not mean I would not love to be wrong,’’ he said. He does see new maturity in Thiem, more controlled aggression on critical points and more skill on the attack.

This year, for a change, it is up to the younger generation to try to stop him.

New York Times

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