Now Thiem is back for another attempt after navigating a draw that included 19th-seeded Kei Nishikori, the second-seeded Zverev and on Friday, the unseeded Italian surprise Marco Cecchinato in a semifinal that Thiem won, 7-5, 7-6 (10), 6-1, after saving three set points in the second-set tiebreaker.
“He’s a big favorite against anybody,” Thiem said of Nadal. “Still, I know how to play against him. I have a plan.”
Most men who face Nadal have a plan. The problem is executing it. Nadal is an astounding 85-2 at Roland Garros, with his only defeats coming against Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009 and against Djokovic in the quarterfinals 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 organized and react. Thiem will have to produce tremendous quality and depth for hours to have a chance to join Soderling and Djokovic’s exclusive club.
“Nadal, in Paris, best-of-five, is still half a class above Dominic, half a level too good,” said Bresnik, who has coached Thiem since Thiem was 9.