Champion Nadal rolls into 11th final

 - Ian Chadband

Rafael Nadal dismisses Juan Martin del Potro in straight sets to set up a final showdown with Dominic Thiem.

Thirteen years since he first reached a Grand Slam final at Roland-Garros as a teen sensation, the 32-year-old Rafael Nadal, older, fiercer, wiser and ever more spectacularly brilliant, crashed his way into his 11th French Open final on Friday. On Sunday, an almost inconceivable 11th title - La Undécima - awaits him.

In the sort of irresistible mood that saw the great Spaniard stamp all over the supposed danger presented by Juan Martin del Potro on Court Phillippe-Chatrier on Friday, blasting to victory 6-4 6-1 6-2 in just under two and a quarter hours, Dominic Thiem will face an examination in the final on Sunday that may well just be the most unfathomable in the whole of sport.

Who can possibly beat Nadal? And is he actually getting better on the Paris clay coming into his mid-thirties? As Nadal punched his arm repeatedly towards the clay like a jackhammer and roared to himself after pummelling the Argentine, Del Potro, looking hopelessly hangdog, seemed to be asking himself those very same questions.

Delpo is one of the sport’s great warriors yet as Nadal stood bare-chested at the end, applauding his Roland-Garros victim number 85 away from his colosseum, he looked like some invincible but courtly gladiator. Had we not been entertained? Well, watching Rafa unleashing hell in his kingdom really does remain something to behold.

“I think so,” nodded Del Potro, when asked if he felt we were seeing a version of Nadal even better than of old. “He's too strong. He's improving his backhand a lot. That's why he's the No.1 and beating all the guys. He looks fresh. I mean, he's healthy. And the strength that he has and the mentally, everything is perfect, works perfect for him playing in clay.”

Was there a danger that everyone might just have to wait for him to retire before the title went elsewhere? “Maybe,” smiled Delpo. “Yeah, well, let's see what Dominic can do. I mean, Dominic beat Rafa in Madrid. Maybe on Sunday he can repeat.”

The bad news for Thiem? Nadal expects to get better. “My feeling is on Sunday I have a very difficult match against a player that is playing great,” he said. “I know I have to play my best if I want to have chances. Sunday is the day to give my best, is the day to increase even a little bit more the level. I hope to be ready to do it.”

After incurring a hip problem in just the third game, it always looked as if mission highly improbable might become mission impossible for Del Potro, although the honest Argentine was adamant that the moment when he hurt his hip twisting and stretching to try to get near a flashing Nadal forehand that had completely wrong-footed him was not a significant factor in the match.

No, the decisive factor, he reckoned, was that he could not convert any of the seven break points he earned during that opening stanza when he had played the better tennis. Nadal, for his part, felt he had got “lucky” in battling through that opener against an “amazing” opponent.

Delpo tried everything in his armoury - changing the pace of rallies, trying to slow-ball Nadal on occasion and sometimes attempting to just blitz him off court with flat thunderbolts yet nothing could distract the Spaniard, who fought to save each of those break points - including three when the scores were locked at 4-4 - as if the idea of being broken was some diabolical affront to him.

Then, having not been able to dent Del Potro’s serve, Nadal struck like a cobra the next game, one thumping backhand winner when at full stretch and a flashing inside-out forehand setting up the set win and effectively the match.

It was not that Del Potro then folded, more that Nadal simply hit the  accelerator. “He is playing every point better from the beginning until the last point of the match, and his intensity is growing up very much during the match, and it's tough to be there all the time,” sighed Del Potro, as one of the best serves in the game went on to be broken five times, twice to love, and 35 Nadal winners flashed past him.

Now, Thiem, who’s the only man to have beaten Nadal on clay this year, enters the lion’s den but Nadal wasn’t in the mood to mull over their next encounter too much.

“You have to face the challenge, and you have to be ready to fight for it and to face the adversity and whatever may happen during the match but these are things that I will think about tomorrow. Today is a day to rejoice. When you're in a final like Roland Garros, it's a great happiness.

“You know when you start the clay court season that Dominic, he's one of these players that have the chance to win every tournament that he's playing, and maybe even more here in Roland Garros because he's strong physically. He has the power.

“He’s been a very complex opponent. He’s in the final, and he had a tough draw, so yes (he’s the toughest opponent I could have faced.)

“For me, the truth is I'm happy to be where I am. I value this very much, especially at this advanced stage of my career and in view of the injuries I have suffered throughout my career.” For the moment, the 11th hour still promises so much for the great man.