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Nadal and Thiem will meet in the French Open final for a second straight year. Our experts break it down.

By The SI Staff
June 08, 2019

Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem will meet in the French Open final for the second straight year when they clash on Sunday. Nadal beat Roger Federer in straight sets in his semifinal on Friday, whereas Thiem needed to return on Saturday to polish off a five-set victory over Dominic Thiem. 

Our experts break down the match, including a prediction. (Spoiler alert: Rafa). 

What are the keys to the match for Thiem?

Jon Wertheim: Thiem needs a fast start to puncture Nadal's confidence and put him under some pressure. The biggest difference between April Nadal (when his struggles on clay included a defeat to Thiem) and Paris Nadal (virtually untouchable) redound to this: at the French Open, he is the embodiment of self-confidence. Thiem needs to deplete some of that. He can do so, by serving well (better than he did against Djokovic), pinning Nadal behind the baseline and standing in, so his he can unload his backhand at chest-height and not neck-height.

Stanley Kay: Serve well. Don’t be afraid to come to the net. Start strong. Stay confident. Take advantage of opportunities on Nadal’s serve. Hope for a bit of divine intervention. 

Jamie Lisanti: When all of the odds and history are against you, you’re left with one key: belief. The 25-year-old Austrian should be armed with some confidence, proving he can beat Nadal on clay—three times, in the best-of-three matches—including a recent straight-sets victory in the Madrid quarterfinals this year. The biggest question for Thiem is whether or not he can hang in for a best-of-five match, and that will come down to whether or not he can control the baseline and take time away from Nadal. Thiem will need to be fully recovered from his taxing, two-day affair against Novak Djokovic and both his punching forehand and two-handed backhand will need to be on and firing. He will also need to believe. 

Daniel Rapaport: He absolutely has to start quickly. Nadal is a devestating front runner everywhere, but especially so at a place where he's had such unparalleled succcess. He needs to serve well. He needs to find a way, despite his tiring lead-up, to be the more energetic player. And he has to take his chances and capitalize on break points. Basically, he has to play a perfect match...and that probably still wouldn't be enough. 

What are the keys to the match for Nadal?

Jon Wertheim: Sustain his level. Rafa has been ClayGOATing here, brutalizing opponents with his power and taking away their potency with his defense. He has lost one set—and he was already up two sets to none at the time—and has played like the 11-time champion he is. Nadal makes life difficult for one-handers. Nadal makes life difficult for fatigued opponents. Thiem is both of those. Though Thiem is the best player in tennis under 30, the fourth seed and a finalist last year, it would be a considerable upset if Nadal doesn't take care of business.

Stanley Kay: Nadal has demolished Thiem each of the last two years at Roland Garros, but Thiem will be confident after beating Nadal earlier this clay season and ousting Djokovic in the semifinal. A strong start from Nadal would chip away at some of that belief and perhaps remind Thiem that beating the King of Clay in a best-of-five setting is an entirely different challenge. Nadal also has to serve better than he did against Thiem in Barcelona, where he won just 65% of first-serve points and 53% of second-serve points. 

Jamie Lisanti: Everything about the Roland Garros final is familiar for Nadal. The only thing that has been different over the course of his 11 titles in Paris has been the opponent across his net, so when preparing for Sunday’s final, Nadal should first look to the young challenger. Thiem will be tired. His body will be fatigued. His mind will be drained after such a mental battle against an older champion. So when looking at his opponent’s state, Nadal then must look at his own history and path to the final. In beating Federer in three sets, Nadal will arrive to Philippe Chatrier with much more in than tank than Thiem, and coupled with his incredible history and mastery on the surface, that might just be enough to carry him over the finish line and extend his record in French Open finals to 11-0 over a formidable opponent.

Daniel Rapaport: Just be Rafa at Roland Garros. Show up, play half-decent (by his standards), avoid injury and this should be his. 

Who will win the match?

Jon Wertheim: You can't pick against Nadal. You just can't. This could be a terrifically competitive match. We'll see how far Thiem has come since last year's final. We'll see whether he can back up clay win over Nadal earlier this year and if his new coach, Nicolas Massu, could add some new tactical twists. But every factor favors Nadal. The home court advantage. The best-of-five format. The easier semifinal. The extra day off. Thiem's win Saturday over Djokovic—and over every adverse circumstance imaginable—was a career win. Already it's been a successful tournament. But it's hard to imagine him taking the title. Rafa in straights.

Stanley Kay: Nadal in four.

Jamie Lisanti: While I think Thiem will push it to  five sets on Sunday, Rafael Nadal will once again be victorious in Paris.

Daniel Rapaport: Rafa in straight sets. Had Thiem not had to play Saturday, that wouldn't be my prediction. But he did, and so that is my prediction. 

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