Thiem time, or 11th hour for Rafa?

 - Ian Chadband

Dominic Thiem faces the so-far impossible task of beating Rafael Nadal in a Roland-Garros final. But he has a plan.

Thiem Nadal finale hommes / men's singles final.

With delightful understatement and a laugh spreading across his fresh face, Dominic Thiem summed up the reason why one of the most formidable challenges in all of sport is one he can relish with free-swinging hope in his heart on Sunday.

“I think if I'm facing Rafa,” mused the Austrian, “I'm not the one who has the pressure.”

He’s not wrong, of course. The expectation in this 116th men’s singles final is all heaped, as ever, upon Rafael Nadal, such a towering monument in Paris now that he’s like La tour Eiffel in a headband.

An 11th victory in an 11th final? Why on earth would we expect anything other? On the court he has ruled with absolute power. Where he has lost just six sets in 10 finals. On the Philippe-Chatrier oblong where he has dominated for so long that no monopoly in the annals of tennis can compare.

Rafa has arrived here for the loss of one set - shock, horror, an occurrence so unworldly against Diego Schwartzman after he’d wrapped up 37 straight sets here that it felt like a significant tremor. Thiem dethroning him, though, would be a sporting earthquake.

Yet if anyone can shake Chatrier to its foundations, why not Thiem, the angelic-looking Austrian with a demonic game, full of blistering aggression, power and daring, a game that Nadal reckoned made him a “complex” opponent.

Complex enough to have been the only one to defeat him - twice - in the past two years on clay, in Rome 2017 and Madrid this year. Yes, the dominant one being dominated by the ‘Dominator’ has raised the royal Rafa eyebrow.

“For sure I can take some things off those wins. If I want to beat him, I have to play that way like I did in Rome and in Madrid,” shrugged Thiem. “But I'm also aware that here it's tougher. He likes the conditions more here than in Madrid, for sure. Best-of-five is also different story.

He found that particular fact out in sobering fashion last year when he was simply overwhelmed 6-3 6-4 6-0 by Nadal in the semi-finals yet Thiem swears he’s a better, more complete player now. “I know how to play against him,” says Thiem boldly. “I have a plan.”

Ah, a man with a plan. How many of those best-laid plans have  unravelled swiftly once confronted with Nadal as a raging study in intensity across the net, treating every point lost as some sort of personal affront.

And on Roland-Garros’s third Sunday, he is even more armour-plated. “This extra thing I have to give, I feel I have it inside me, but I have to go and get it. I have to find it inside me and find the right options for Sunday, the options that will be the right ones to succeed,” he says.

“But I will have to fight, and I'll do my best. I can't tell you more. The behaviour and the mentality will be there, but the tennis can fail. You never know.”

Yes, the Rafa tennis can fail but at Roland-Garros, it happens once, maybe twice, in a Paris blue moon. For Soderling and Djokovic, can we now read Thiem? Well, Team Thiem can dream but so often it’s the nightmares that grab hold in Nadal’s very own personal chamber of horrors.