Rafael Nadal might not have played his best in a French Open semifinal on Friday, but the nine-time Roland Garros champion dispatched up-and-coming Dominic Thiem 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 to reach his 10th final at the clay-court Grand Slam tournament, extending his record for the most final appearances in Paris.
“Today he did not play very well. He played good, but he was a bit nervous and tense,” said Toni Nadal, who coached his nephew to 14 Grand Slam titles.
Facing a player who already had beaten him twice on clay, Nadal needed little more than two hours to secure his spot in Sunday's final, where he will face 2015 champion Stan Wawrinka, who defeated Andy Murray 6-7 (6), 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (3), 6-1 to become the oldest men's finalist at Roland Garros in 44 years.
The 32-year-old Swiss player heads to his fourth Grand Slam final. He's won the previous three, beating Nadal at the Australian Open in 2014, and Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros two years ago and the U.S. Open last September.
Nadal's topspin caused problems for his sixth-seeded rival throughout the match, and his experience also paid off. He converted six of 10 break points, while Thiem took only one of his eight opportunities to break serve.
“He was up against a player in great form, who had just beaten (Novak) Djokovic and had not dropped a set,” Toni Nadal said. “I think that Rafael did not play at his best, but well enough. While the other saw a mountain in Rafael, and sometimes tried to hit harder than usually, and made more errors than he normally does.”
Back to his best level after being forced out of last year's French Open by a wrist injury that hampered him the whole season, Nadal has been impressive over the past two weeks. He has yet to drop a set and has lost only 29 games in six matches, just two games off the record for the fewest games dropped in reaching a Grand Slam final in the Open era.
“When I recovered and my wrist got better, I was able to train and train well,” Rafael Nadal said at a post-match news conference. “I think with my team we did everything to take a fresh, good start. And again, fight hard. And now we are reaping the benefits of this.”
The No. 3-seeded Wawrinka, nicknamed “Stan the Man,” called facing Nadal at Roland Garros “probably the biggest challenge you can have in tennis.
“You expect him to hit a lot of balls, for sure. I wasn't always happy with that,” Wawrinka said through a grin. “You know what his game is, you know how well he can play, and you need to accept it. You need to, as I say, keep pushing yourself.”
A year ago at the French Open, Wawrinka lost to Murray in the semifinals. This time, Wawrinka wore down the seemingly tireless Murray, also a three-time major champion. Wawrinka used his sublime one-handed backhand and hammer of a forehand to send Murray scrambling and sliding all over Court Philippe Chatrier.
Murray would lean, or even lunge, and somehow put his racket strings on seemingly unreachable shots. He used plenty of drop shots and lobs. He retrieved overheads.
But make no mistake: Wawrinka does not discourage easily. He is the oldest man in a French Open title match since Niki Pilic was 33 when he was the runner-up to Ilie Nastase in 1973.
By the anticlimactic close of what Murray termed “a very high-intensity match,” he was complaining aloud about having “no legs.”
So Wawrinka ran away with the fifth set, taking 16 of the first 21 points and going up 5-0. He capped it, appropriately, with a backhand down the line, his 87th winner of the day, 51 more than Murray.