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By Chris Oddo | Friday June 9, 2017

 
Nadal

Rafael Nadal put forth a sublime performance to shatter the hopes of Dominic Thiem in Paris on Friday.

Photo Source: Julian Finney/Getty

Dominic Thiem entered Friday’s Roland Garros semifinal with Rafael Nadal tied with the Spaniard in clay-court wins for 2017 and as the only man to notch a victory over the king of clay on his beloved red clay this season.

#RG17: Wawrinka Outlasts Murray in Five to Reach French Final

But the yawning chasm between the two players in matches of this magnitude and on stages as grand as Court Philippe Chatrier in Paris became poignantly apparent over the course of Nadal’s 127-minute 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 shellacking of the Austrian wunderkind.

Thiem, thought of as a future Roland Garros champion and already one of the most revered players on his preferred red clay, was throttled from start to finish by a dialed-in Nadal who appears as fit and focused as he has been since he claimed his last major title at Roland Garros three years ago in 2014.

Nadal is not as young as he was then—he turned 31 last Saturday—but there is an argument to be made that he is playing better tennis. Nobody has perfected the art of molding himself into a fear-inspiring dynamo over the course of a European springtime and this season he has apparently taken his art to the next level. It’s as if every ball Nadal struck from his first appearance in April at Monte-Carlo to his last serve down the T in today’s semifinal has been hit with a higher purpose.

Five wins in Monte-Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid gave him the confidence in his strokes, his strength and his fitness, and an alarming loss to Thiem in the Rome quarterfinal three weeks ago may have added the dash of peppery humility that he needed to reach the turbo mode in Paris.

Like a swelling wave, Nadal and his enormous desire have risen and taken shape, and today every atom of his guttural game was unleashed on Thiem, rendering him adrift in an undertow of searing forehands, pinpoint serves and an awe-inspiring level of focus, commitment and execution.

Nadal was broken in the first game of the match but quickly responded with a break of his own, and by the time he had reeled off four straight games to take a 4-1 lead it was obvious that Thiem, ready as he may be the assert his beastly clay-court stylings on the rest of the tour, was in over his head on this day against Nadal.

The Austrian would battle admirably, even after quickly falling behind by a set and a break, but in retrospect his fate may have been sealed with his eye-opening win over Nadal in Rome. Might that victory have caused Thiem to take too conventional approach to facing Nadal again? Unlike his eye-opening victory over Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals--a direct response to a beatdown from the Serb in the Rome semis--there wasn’t urgency in Thiem's game plan on Friday, only impatience, and as the match wore on the errors piled up and the winners came at greater intervals.

Court Philippe Chatrier is Nadal’s court and this was Nadal’s match to win—that was clear once he had reclaimed the break in set one. There was a bristling snarl to his game, as well as acumen and efficiency. His focus never wavered and on the rare occasion that he flubbed a shot or made a tactical decision that he was not pleased with he quickly made up for it by rifling through the next few points. Or games.

The wave broke hard at the finish and Nadal’s smothering tennis engulfed Thiem in its wake, pushing him under the surface with a focused fury. Though he had the match in his grasp, Nadal also knew that he had to be firm. Dropping a set or even getting involved in a prolonged battle for control in the third set could have opened the door for nightfall in Paris to intervene.


That would have been nightmarish for Nadal and heavenly for Thiem, not to mention Stan Wawrinka, who was already no doubt relaxing over dinner after his five-set semifinal victory over Andy Murray on Friday. But you don’t win nine Roland Garros titles without knowing a thing or two about the urgency with which tough yet vulnerable opponents must be put out of their misery.

Nadal won 27 of the final 36 points against a bewildered Thiem to reach a record 10th Roland Garros final. There’s much work to be done but the Spaniard can take comfort in the fact that he has joined Roger Federer as the only man to reach 10 finals at the same major in the Open Era.

He has now won a mind-boggling 22 of 25 Grand Slam semifinals and possesses a staggering 78-2 record at Roland Garros.

But there’s only one thing that matters for Nadal at the moment and you can see it in his eyes and you can feel it in the thunderous snap of his groundstrokes. You can hear his feet shifting on the clay and the feral urgency of his groans.

There are no records, no milestones on his mind.

Only a stunning, singular purpose, and a desire to conquer the moment that’s in front of him.

On Sunday he’ll face the toughest possible opponent as he bids for his 10th Roland Garros title and his 15th major title. Three-time Slam champion Wawrinka has never lost a major final and he’s become the ultimate big match player since he paired with coach Magnus Norman and started to turn his vast potential into regularly won Grand Slam titles (three in total, all in the last three years).

Nadal’s 15-3 lifetime record over Wawrinka is not indicative of how fiercely contested this match will be. Since Wawrinka ended a 12-match losing streak against Nadal in the 2014 Australian Open final, the pair have split six matches and 14 sets.

But this match will be different than all the others the pair have contested. As much as the Spaniard tries to put the blinders on and focus on making the successive dominoes fall, there will be electricity in the air. In the back of his mind Nadal will know that his wave is approaching the shore.

There’s nothing left to save for tomorrow.


 

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