PARIS • As the only man to have beaten Rafael Nadal on clay over the past two seasons, Dominic Thiem knows he has the weapons and expertise to topple the 10-time champion in today's French Open final.
However, the Austrian is wary a best-of-five Grand Slam match represents a different challenge, especially at a tournament in which the world No. 1 Spaniard has been beaten only twice in 87 matches.
Thiem beat Nadal in straight sets in Rome 13 months ago and at the Madrid Masters last month, but in their two previous Roland Garros meetings in 2014 and 2017, the seventh-seeded Austrian won a total of only 14 games.
"He is a big favourite against everybody. Still, I know how to play against him. I have a plan," a confident Thiem, who dispatched Marco Cecchinato 7-5, 7-6 (12-10), 6-1 in the semi-finals on Friday, said.
Like Thiem, most men who face Nadal have a plan. The problem lies in executing that plan.
Nadal's only defeats at Roland Garros came against Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009 and against Novak Djokovic in a quarter-final in 2015.
The conventional wisdom is that the only way to prevail is to take time away from him: to attack at the first decent opportunity before Nadal strikes first or locks his opponent into a geometric inferno by controlling the baseline exchanges with his whipping forehand and excellent two-handed backhand.
Thiem does indeed have punching power: both with his serve and his groundstrokes, with the forehand doing most of the damage.
But he is also most comfortable positioning himself deep behind the baseline, which allows Nadal more time to get organised and react.
The Austrian will then have to produce tremendous quality and depth for hours to have a chance to join Soderling and Djokovic's exclusive club. But his confidence has grown, having reached the final of a Grand Slam for the first time after falling in the semis in the last two years here.
"The most important thing is that the weapons are there and the physical shape and of course, there is also the mental part," the 24-year-old added. "If I want to beat him, I have to play that way like I did in Rome and in Madrid."
If Thiem wins today, he will be the youngest man to win at Roland Garros since Nadal won at 24 in 2010.
Perhaps the time has come for a new "King of Clay". Nadal admitted that his desire to clinch an 11th French Open title is fired by his growing realisation that the end of his career may not be too far away.
The 32-year-old, with 16 Majors to his name, will play in his 24th Grand Slam final.
"For me, the motivation to play here always is high, high as possible," said Nadal after breezing past Juan Martin del Potro 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 in Friday's semi-finals.
"But for me, I believe that there are limited chances in your career.
"I have lost a lot of opportunities through injuries, and I know the years are going quick. So there is not 10 more chances to keep playing here."
The statistics illustrate Nadal's concerns - he has missed at least eight Grand Slams in his career through a legacy of wrist and knee problems.
Such is his motivation to win his 17th Slam today, that the task facing Thiem was described as "almost impossible" by del Potro.
"He's too strong. That's why he's the No. 1," said the Argentinian.
"And the strength that he has and the mentality, everything is perfect for him playing on clay."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NYTIMES
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