Roland Garros 2019: Dominic Thiem vs. Rafael Nadal Preview

It can happen

Dominic Thiem vs. Rafael Nadal

Dominic Thiem is to be commended for winning 6 matches to reach his second consecutive Roland Garros final.  Recovering from a failed attempt at serving out the match that included squandering two match points is no small feat.  This is especially true when one considers that Novak Djokovic was the opponent on the other side of the net.  During this clay season, Thiem has recorded victories over each of the big three.  While he trails Rafa in their head-to-head 4-8, Thiem is a more than respectable 4-7 vs. Rafa on clay.  This includes a win in their most recent clash (Barcelona 2019).  Their non-clay meeting at last year’s US Open was a brutal five set slug fest.  So Thiem has a chance, but can he actually win in Paris vs. Rafa? I am not sure.  Some will depend on the conditions.  If Thiem can hit through the court, that is to his advantage.  Still, I think the dimensions of the court in Paris allow Rafa to defend and counter-punch better than anywhere else on the plant.  So while I don’t think Thiem can win by playing a timid match or a wait and see match, I also am not sure hitting through the court puts him at even 50-50 odds for winning. Rafael Nadal has won nearly 98% of his matches at the French Open from 2005-2019.  That is a lot of information to suggest that beating Nadal in this setting is the biggest challenge in tennis.  A 12th title would have Rafa doubling Bjorn Borg’s gaudy total of 6 French Open titles and quadrupling the title hauls of players such as Wilander, Lendl, and Kuerten.  It is one thing to say Djokovic has 1 more Australian Open title than Federer or that Federer has one more Wimbledon title than Sampras.  It is impressive to have the all-time record at any Grand Slam event, but to do what Nadal has done defies all logic. I do have a relative who plays tennis who told me today, “I think Thiem beats him.  At some point, age is a reality and Thiem hits harder than anyone.”  I can understand someone picking Thiem, but I think until someone does it in the final, Rafa has to be favored and heavily favored.  Here’s why:

    • Even if Thiem is the hardest hitter off the ground, Rafa is no lightweight.  His shots have a combination or power, placement, spin, and imagination that often put an opponent on the defensive.

 

  • Not only do Rafa’s shots attack an opponent, they do so with a high margin for error.  This is exceptionally vexing as no one is grabbing cheap points from Rafa over hitting and no one is teeing up winners due to Rafa pushing.

 

 

  • Rafa is mentally tough and competes exceptionally hard.  The above bullet points clearly make Rafa a tough out, but when he is contesting every shot in every point on top of the gifts listed, the path to victory becomes very challenging.

 

 

  • Rafa has to believe in himself and be supremely confident due to all of his previous success.

 

So yes, at some point, someone has to dethrone Rafa or Rafa has to retire for this cycle to end.  Thiem is the first significantly younger challenger to pick up the burden of this task.  Thiem is a tremendously gifted player who has a lot of recent big wins on clay.  Rafa respects Thiem’s game a great deal.  Thiem stopped Djokovic’s Grand Slam winning streak at 26 despite wobbling when serving for the match.  Thiem has a real chance at winning, but I don’t think having a chance is the same thing as having a good chance or being the favorite.  Rafael Nadal likely wins in 3 or 4 sets.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

 

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