For a moment, it looked like Dominic Thiem’s long awaited ascension to the clay-court throne was at hand. After dropping a thrilling first set, in which he had at one point led by a break, the Austrian fourth seed had dug his heels in to stay alive in the second, before striking late to take it, helped by some errors from Rafael Nadal’s racquet. Concerns about Thiem’s fitness after four straight days of play had become a distant memory. He was ready, willing and able to take his game to Nadal.
Until he wasn’t. Nadal, as he has done to so many players on the red clay at Roland Garros, simply snatched it away from Thiem, blending iron-walled defence with fearsome winners to storm to victory. He responded to losing the second set by breaking Thiem’s serve to love in the first game of the third and there the 25-year-old’s challenge foundered. His legs began to look heavy and his shot selection became increasingly desperate as he sought to bludgeon his way through Nadal, but without the patience he had displayed in the match’s opening stanzas.
The result was predictable. Nadal backed up the break with another to take a commanding lead in the third. Thiem, who had begun the match playing with such conviction, looked lost, utterly unable to contend with the power and variety that Nadal was hurling at him. He still had his moments. This was after all the man that had outlasted and outhit world #1 Novak Djokovic in the semifinals, ending the Serbian’s quest for a second ‘Nole Slam’ with a five-set win.
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But for every punishing forehand blow that Thiem landed, every scorching backhand winner that he lashed past Nadal, the Spaniard replied with four or five of his own. Nadal, in full flight on a clay court, is a sight to behold and there was little left for Thiem to do but watch, perhaps admiringly, as Nadal dismantled him. A backhand hit on the stretch crashed into the net to give Nadal the third set and complete control of the match.
He came out firing in the fourth, seeking to deliver the coup de grace that would put Thiem decisively in the dust. It was not long in coming. Thiem managed to force a break point in the first game of the set, but it proved to be the final defiance of a doomed man. Nadal saved it was a thunderous forehand and broke in the next game when Thiem misfired off the ground once again. Thiem fought on gamely, but he was a wounded beast and Nadal was circling him, drawing in for the kill.
The crowd, who had offered Thiem their support during much of the match, fell increasingly silent as the inevitable end approached. Thiem, staring into the abyss down 0-3, faced three more break points, but saved them all after some excellent serving to just about keep his hopes alive. His character, his will to win, could not be doubted. But as valiant an effort as it was, it could do little to alter the fate of a match which had already been decided.
Nadal came in search of the second break again and this time there was to be no escape for Thiem. Though he saved the first with a superb volley on the stretch, facing a second he blazed a forehand wildly out of the court to surrender his serve and leave Nadal just a game away from a 12th Roland Garros title. And just as the Spaniard had 11 times before, he served it out with ease to step forward into yet more glory in the Parisian sunshine, leaving another challenger battered and broken in his wake.
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