WASHINGTON, June 9, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
On Sunday, top seed Rafael Nadal will face No. 7 seed Dominic Thiem for the 2018 French Open championship. The winner gets to hoist the Coupe de Mousquetaires. Nadal has won Roland Garros 10 times – most of any athlete – male or female – which has endeared him to the French and tennis fans worldwide.
After playing a tentative first set in his semifinal on Friday, Nadal took control of his match against No. 5 seed Juan Martín del Potro and kicked into a very aggressive, high-intensity level en route to a 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 victory on Court Philippe Chatrier. The win improved his career French Open semifinal record to 11-0.
“I’m very happy to return to the final at Roland Garros,” said Nadal, 32, after his semifinal win against del Potro. “For me, it’s incredible.”
Now, in order for Nadal to reach 11-0 in French Open finals – no easy task, but still achievable by the King of Clay – he’ll need to beat the 24-year-old Thiem, the only player to beat the Spaniard on clay over the past two seasons, most recently in straight sets in the quarterfinals of the ATP Masters 1000 Mutua Madrid Open in Madrid, Spain, last month. It will be the Austrian Thiem’s first appearance in a Grand Slam final.
“For sure, I can take some things off that,” said Thiem following his semifinal win over unseeded Marco Cecchinato of Italy, 7-5, 7-6 (10), 6-1, in which he saved three set points during the 22-point second-set tie-break that ended Ceccinato’s Cinderella run at this year’s French Open. “If I want to beat (Rafa), I have to play that way, like I did in Rome (2017) and in Madrid. But I’m also aware that here it’s tougher. He likes the conditions more here than in Madrid, for sure.”
A Nadal victory over Thiem would equal Margaret Court’s career record of 11 singles titles in one major tournament, which she accomplished at the Australian Open at a time that bridged both amateur and Open professional eras. Meanwhile, a Thiem victory over Nadal would make him the youngest man to win at Roland Garros since Nadal won at age 24 in 2010.
“He’s a big favorite against anybody,” said Thiem speaking of Nadal. “Still, I know how to play against him. I have a plan.”
Nadal, who has accumulated an incredible 85-2 career win-loss record at Roland Garros – the only losses were against Robin Söderling in the fourth round in 2009 and against Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals in 2015 – overwhelmed del Potro throughout much of their semifinal. The Spaniard hit 35 winners while committing just 19 unforced errors. He saved three break points at 1-all in the first set and three more at 4-all. From there, Nadal broke del Potro to earn the first set and went on to win 14 of the last 17 games. You could see from the look on del Potro’s face that the Argentine was filled with exasperation every time that Nadal hit a lethal forehand or tracked down a ball in the corners thanks to his sheer hustle and determination. It seemed little went right for del Potro, who was making just his first Roland Garros semifinal appearance since 2009.
So, what does Thiem need to do to beat Nadal? “The conventional wisdom,” according to New York Times tennis columnist Christopher Clarey, “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.”
Further, Clarey writes, “Thiem does indeed have punching power, both with his serve and his groundstrokes, 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 organized and react. Thiem will have to produce tremendous quality and depth for hours to have a chance to join Söderling’s and Djokovic’s exclusive club.”
Is it Halep’s time to finally win a major?
The French Open women’s final will match World No. 1 Simona Halep of Romania, in search of her first Grand Slam title, against No. 10 seed American Sloane Stephens, who is seeking her second major in nine months after winning the 2017 U.S. Open. Halep, whose No. 1 ranking is assured win or lose, is playing in her third French Open final. She leads in her career head-to-head against Stephens, 5-2.
“I like what Sloane Stephens has done this tournament – it brings to mind her play at the 2017 U.S. Open, as she has found a way to blend defense with offense and blend smiling poise with fixed intensity,” writes Sports Illustrated executive editor and tennis columnist Jon Wertheim. “Her top-five ranking starting next week is well-deserved. But you just have the feeling that Simona Halep is not going to let this opportunity slip away. As she knows better than anyone, it is her fourth major final, and after various disappointments of various degrees, she is ready to take the trophy.”
After the top seed Halep lost the first set in her first round match against Alison Riske of the United States, she’s been all business since, winning with confidence and playing with a purpose. Earlier in the tournament, after her fourth-round win over Elise Mertens of Belgium, Halep remarked, “I’m trying to enjoy my time (on court) and not think too much. I’m on court just to play each match. If I win, then I prepare for the next one. I’m trying to stay relaxed.”
Halep’s last two victories have come against a pair of former Grand Slam champions. First, she beat former Australian Open and U.S. Open champion Angelique Kerber in the quarterfinals, 6-7 (2), 6-3, 6-2. Then, she ousted former French Open and reigning Wimbledon champion Garbiñe Muguruza, 6-1, 6-4, in the semifinals. Halep has dropped just two sets the entire tournament. Discount those two lost sets and she’s dropped only 24 games during the fortnight.
Meanwhile, there’s much to like about the 25-year-old Stephens’s relaxed attitude and on-court demeanor. Since dropping her only set in the tournament, in her third-round victory over Camila Giorgi, Stephens has dominated her last three opponents – Anett knotaveit of Estonia in the round of 16, Daria Kasatkina of Russia in the quarterfinals, and fellow American Madison Keys, whom she beat in Thursday’s semifinals, 6-4, 6-4.
In an article appearing on the WTA’s website, Stephens, who will break into the Top 5 next week, was asked what has enabled her to move her game to the next level. She was quoted as saying, “Getting older, more mature, just being out here for long periods of time, just traveling week in and week out, learning myself, learning my routines, learning what works best for me and what doesn’t.
“It’s an individual sport, so you have to figure that out to make sure you give yourself the best chance, and I think I do that well some weeks.”
Stephens is 6-0 in career finals, and because she’s won one major – one more than Halep – it wouldn’t be surprising to many to see her lift another Grand Slam trophy Saturday afternoon. “I think once I get going in a tournament, I’m pretty consistent, which is good. I just try to keep that going through the finals and just compete to the very last match.”