Four Thoughts on the Men’s Semifinals at Roland Garros

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PARIS — There were two massive underdogs competing in the men’s semifinals at the French Open on Friday. The first was Marco Cecchinato, the world’s 72nd-ranked player who had never won a Grand Slam singles match before this tournament. The second was the No. 6 player in the world, Juan Martin del Potro, because facing Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros is about a difficult a task as sport has to offer. 

Neither man was able to win a set. 

In the first semifinal, Dominic Thiem ended Cecchinato’s Cinderella run via a 7-5, 7-6 (10), 6-1 victory. Next up on Philippe-Chatrier was Nadal—the King of Clay on his court—and he delivered a terrific performance, making del Potro look patently average en route to a 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 victory. 

Nadal will face Thiem in Sunday’s final, which is Nadal’s 11th at Roland Garros and Thiem’s first in any major. 

Here are three thoughts from Friday’s action. 

Cecchinato’s story is a great one, but it’s not without its skeletons

Any discussion about Cecchinato’s match-fixing scandal should start with an acknolwedgement of his ultimate acquittal, but the circumstantial evidence certianly isn’t particularly favorable (read this thread for details). Calling it murky would be…charitable. For better or for worse, Cecchinato himself has responded to any question about it here by saying he will talk about it at a later date, and that has had the effect of burying the storyline. 

His remarkable run—remember, he won his first-round match 10-8 in the fifth set—is offset a bit by these allegations. They came from non-ATP level matches, which is where the vast majority of tennis’ corruption takes place, but corrupt behavior at the lower levels becomes a problem when those players graduate to the big time. He was a great story, but it’s certainly undermined by this inconvenient allegation. 

Dominic Thiem is the third best clay courter in the world

I’m sticking to my guns in saying the world’s second-best clay courter is a 36-year-old Swiss who opted not to play in this event, but Thiem’s run to the final has cemented his status as the second-best clay court player who competed here. It is nice to get the two best clay courters possible in Sunday’s final. If you were laying odds at the beginning of the tournament, Thiem was nowhere near the seventh favorite (he’s seeded No. 7). 

Rafa’s dominance is forcing us to look at other sports

He’s 85-2 at the French Open. Eighty five and two. We have officially run out of superlatives to describe this man’s clay court greatness, and we’ve also run out of intra-tennis comparisons. Trying to beat Nadal at Roland Garros in a best-of-five match is akin to trying to beat ’08 Phelps in the individual medley, or 2012 Usain Bolt in the 200-meter dash…you get the picture. 

Conditions will largely determine whether Thiem has a chance

Thiem has beaten Nadal on clay in each of the past two seasons, including just a few weeks ago on clay in Madrid, so that will certainly boost his confidence. It is worth relaying, though, that in last year’s semifinal, Nadal dropped just seven games total against the Austrian. And I spoke to Dominic on Friday, and he made it clear to me that best-of-five at Roland Garros is so very different from best-of-three in Madrid. 

Conditions will play a huge rule in Thiem’s chances. If it’s soggy and the court slows down, that will blunt some of Nadal’s power and not allow his forehand to get as high on Thiem’s one-hand backhand. That’s Thiem’s best chance.

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