PARIS – Under pressure at the outset, Rafael Nadal already had cast aside three break points in his French Open semifinal’s third game when, at four-all, Juan Martin del Potro held another three.
If Nadal’s march toward an 11th championship at Roland Garros was going to be stopped on this day, things were going to have to go del Potro’s way right then. Both men knew that full well.
“That,” del Potro said, “was my chance.”
But there’s a reason Nadal is 11-0 in semifinals at the French Open, a reason he is 10-0 in finals there — so far. He doesn’t cede a thing and he doesn’t let up. Nadal saved that second trio of break points, held there, then broke in the next game to grab that set. It was part of a run in which he claimed 14 of the last 17 games to overwhelm the No. 5-seeded del Potro 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 and earn yet another spot in the title match at Court Philippe Chatrier.
In Sunday’s final, Nadal will face No. 7 Dominic Thiem, a 24-year-old from Austria who is the only man to beat him on red clay over the past two seasons.
“He’s a big favorite against everybody,” said Thiem, who reached his first Grand Slam final by ending the out-of-nowhere run of 72nd-ranked Marco Cecchinato of Italy 7-5, 7-6 (10), 6-1. “Still, I know how to play against him. I have a plan.”
Surely, so did del Potro. That crucial early juncture altered the course of things, though.
What went through Nadal’s mind right then?
“Just thinking in a positive way and just thinking that I have to hold. ‘I can’t give him the game. If he wins the game, OK. But I will not give it to him,”’ Nadal said. “That’s the only way for me to approach the tough moments.”
Truth is, there were not many the rest of the way, as Nadal finished with 35 winners and just 19 unforced errors.
“I couldn’t play my best because of him,” said del Potro. “His game is too good for me.”
Too good for nearly everyone, nearly every time, on clay.
Nadal is now 110-2 in best-of-five-set matches on the surface, 85-2 in Paris. Over the past two years, including best-of-three matches, the Spaniard is 49-2 at clay tournaments.
Thiem is responsible for both of those losses — at Rome in May 2017, and at Madrid last month — which at least lends a little intrigue to Sunday’s proceedings.
“If I want to beat him,” Thiem said, “I have to play that way.”
Thiem has been to the semifinals in Paris three years in a row, but he lost to eventual champions Novak Djokovic in 2016, then Nadal in 2017.