© Pierre René-Worms, FRANCE 24 | Rafael Nadal was in ominous form as he powered past Argentina's Juan-Martin Del Potro on Friday.
Rafael Nadal brushed aside Juan Martin Del Potro in straight sets on Friday to continue his quest for an 11th French Open title. He will face Dominic Thiem, who earlier ended Marco Cecchinato’s extraordinary run on the Paris clay.
A 10-time champion at Roland Garros, Nadal is bidding to tie Margaret Court’s all-time record of most singles titles won at a single Grand Slam. And judging by his 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 demolition of Argentina’s Del Potro on Friday, it is hard to see what could possibly prevent him from doing so.
The 32-year-old Spaniard has never lost a final on the red clay of Paris. He will be the hot favourite on Sunday when he takes on the seventh seed Austrian Thiem, who has never before played in a Grand Slam final.
"It is almost impossible to beat Rafa," said a downbeat Del Potro after his bruising defeat. "He's too strong. He's improving his backhand a lot. That's why he's the No. 1 and beating all the guys."
Nadal had enjoyed a comfortable ride into the semis, barring a blip in the quarter-finals against another Argentine, Diego Schwartzman, when he dropped his first set in Paris since 2015 before a rain delay helped him figure things out. His clash with fifth seed Del Potro, who was playing in his first French Open semi-final since 2009 after years of injury, was billed as a sterner challenge.
Much had been said about Del Potro’s fearsome forehand -- a stroke that can “chop trees down” -- breaking through Nadal’s defences. But the Spaniard proved to be more than a match for the hulking Argentine, mercilessly picking on Del Potro’s weaker backhand and tormenting him with some exquisite drop-shots.
Del Potro was made to pay dearly for missed opportunities in the first set, when he failed to convert any of the six break points he earned at 1-1 and 4-4. He was soon punished in the tenth game when Nadal broke his serve to claim the first set and power on to victory in just over two hours.
Thiem through to maiden final
Earlier in the day, Thiem put an end to Cecchinato’s fairytale run at the French Open to book a place in his first Grand Slam final with a 7-5, 7-6 (12-10), 6-1 victory. He is the first Austrian to reach this stage of the tournament since Thomas Muster triumphed at Roland Garros in 1995.
Cecchinato, the world number 72, had never won a match at a Grand Slam tournament before arriving at this year’s French Open unseeded and unheralded. In tennis circles, he was best known for a match-fixing scandal of which he was eventually cleared on a technicality.
His roller-coaster ride at Roland Garros included an epic fightback from two sets down in the opening round and a second-round defeat of Argentine lucky loser Marco Trungelliti, whose 10-hour dash to Paris in a rental car had been the buzz of Roland Garros. Cecchinato then went on to beat 10th seed Pablo Carreno Busta, eighth seed David Goffin and, memorably, 12-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic.
© Pierre René-Worms, FRANCE 24 | Dominic Thiem during his semi-final win over Marco Cecchinato.
After a nervous start to his semi-final on Friday, the Italian soon displayed the fearless tennis that helped him stun rivals in previous rounds, though he was ultimately outpowered by the Austrian.
While Thiem wrapped up the contest in straight sets, the first two made for an enthralling contest between two players gifted with a beautiful one-handed backhand. A gripping tie-breaker in the second set, which Thiem clinched 12-10, proved to be the turning point as a deflated Cecchinato rapidly surrendered in the third.
“It was very close and I saved, I think, three set points,” Thiem later told reporters. “If I lost that tiebreak it would have been a very close match, I think, and I didn’t want that.”
At 24, Thiem is the youngest man to reach the final in Paris since Nadal. He is also the only man to have defeated the Spaniard on clay both this year and the last. On Sunday, he will need to be at his very best to repeat the feat in a best-of-five-sets contest, on a court that is often described as the 10-time Spanish champion’s “second home”.