When the American outlaw Jesse James died, people came from miles around to see his body. There was complete silence in the room where his corpse lay. The men, women and children who gazed on him could not believe that the man they had read stories and sung songs about for years was not only dead, but also physically in their presence. That he was, finally, a man. T. J. Stiles wrote of that scene: “One of the great mysteries of the age had appeared incarnate. Every one of the onlookers knew the name Jesse James.”
Rafael Nadal is more than a man when he steps on court at the French Open. He is an accumulation of victories; some easy, some hard, but all part of his hard-earned aura. He can be unsettled, he can be made to sweat — Diego Schwartzman proved this in the first set of their quarterfinal — but he cannot be subdued. Years after he has retired from tennis, when Nadal visits the French Open, his legacy will continue to walk with him. He is a singular champion with an unassailable legacy. In Sunday’s final, Dominic Thiem will be playing against a man who has proved himself as the greatest clay court player in the history of tennis. He will also be playing against a legend: 10 finals played and 10 finals won, and a win loss record of 85-2. Unassailable dominance. Legendary.
Of the 128 men in the main draw of the 2018 French Open, Thiem has the best chance of defeating Nadal. He has beaten him twice in the last two years on clay, in the quarterfinals of the Rome Masters in 2017 and the Madrid Open in 2018. Both times he prevailed because he imposed himself on Nadal.
Thiem is a bulldozer. His ambitious scheduling – he played and won a tournament that ended the day before the French Open started – and arduous training regimen have defined his rise through the tennis rankings. His style is such that his results are nit-and-miss. He may play brilliantly and blast even a great opponent off the court, or he could over hit every other shot and lose to a much lower ranked player.The form he has displayed so far at the French Open has been some of the best of his career. When he is dialed in, Thiem is a sight to behold. He plays with an intensity rarely seen; obliterating balls with his one-handed backhand, and putting away points with lancing forehands of even greater speed.
The one man who puts even Thiem’s intensity to shame is Nadal. One of the reasons he has only lost two matches at the French Open in his entire career is his unrelenting style of play. Over the course of a best-of-five set match, there are inevitable lulls where one player or the other drops their level. When Nadal’s opponents fall off even a little, he pounces. Once he has even the slightest bit of momentum he usually runs away with the match, especially when he is playing on a court he knows so well.
All legends grow old. When they do, something odd happens. The weight of their own invincibility grows heavier. Nadal entered this French Open such astrong favorite that anything less than winning the title will be a disappointment. He made the point after his four set quarterfinal win in which he was, at one point, down a set and a break that, “[he is] a human person.” In heavy, wet, rainy conditions, Nadal can look human, even on Court Philippe Chatrier. He has been nervous during the first set of his fourth round, quarterfinal, and semifinal matches. He won two of those three first sets and once he settled into each match, his level rose with each passing point.
If Thiem is to have any chance against Nadal, he will need to capitalize on any nerves that may be present at the beginning of the match. Thiem has stated in advance of the final that he has a game plan for Nadal. If Thiem loses the first set, however, there is virtually no coming back unless Nadal becomes injured. Whatever Thiem’s plan is, it almost certainly involves winning the first set.
Having a game plan and executing it are two different things. Thiem is contesting his first grand slam final. Nadal, who has already won 16 grand slam titles, is playing in his 24th final. The occasion is much more likely to unsettle Thiem than Nadal. If Thiem betrays any nerves of his own early in the match, it could provide the opening Nadal needs to take control of the match immediately.
Though he will appear in the flesh, though he will miss forehands and double fault like a normal tennis player, Nadal will remain part man part legend, a walking impossibility, still mighty and still capable of the extraordinary. Thiem may trouble Nadal, but legends are not born easily and they do not grow without challenge.
Expect Nadal to add to his legend with yet another win on Philippe Chatrier and an 11th French Open title. He will likely win in straight sets, possibly four if Thiem is especially inspired.