2017 French Open Final: Rafael Nadal (-600) vs Stan Wawrinka (+400)
It’s midway through the second set of the French Open semi-final. Rafael Nadal, the best tennis player in the history of clay, is up a set and a break against Dominic Thiem, a young clay-court player whose game oscillates somewhere between world-class and transcendental. Thiem is the one of four players to defeat Nadal this year, and the only one to do it on clay, having beat Nadal in straight sets just three weeks ago. Grand Slam tennis is a five-set marathon in which anything can happen, so naturally I’ve been asked to preview the Nadal/Wawrinka final and I’m worried I won’t get it done before the match is over.
Thiem defeated Nadal in Rome last month by smacking the bejeezus out of the ball and displaying some of the best offensive tennis he or anyone else has played in the last calendar year. That is perhaps the only proven formula for beating Nadal: try to make big shots when you can. Don’t try to outlast him. Bet big when you’ve got the cards and hope to beat the house that way. Today, at the French Open, Thiem wasn’t able to achieve the same effect: he was pushed off the back of the court by Nadal’s imperious spin and, when he found opportunities to set his feet and take those big swings, he wasn’t able to land the same aggressive strikes. Thiem’s massive strokes were met with precise counterpunches that were somewhere between difficult and impossible to recover from. Thiem took a lot of the same risks he took in Rome but the payout was very different.
Wawrinka has had a great tournament so far, and for many is viewed as the only other player capable of beating Nadal. Playing Cilic, Fognini and Gael Monfils in the earlier rounds, Wawrinka didn’t drop a set until a five-set thriller with Andy Murray in the semi-final. In that match, Wawrinka played an aggressive strategy (87 winners and 77 unforced errors) that he’ll need to replicate to beat Nadal. His groundstrokes got stronger and stronger as his match with Murray wore on. The scintillating backhand that has kept Wawrinka in vodka and high heels since 2002 was in full effect, Murray’s tournament ending on this stunning down the line strike.
Wawrinka and Nadal last played at Monte Carlo in 2016, where Nadal won in straight sets. The matchup has never favored Wawrinka; Nadal’s heavy spin has always frustrated one–handed backhands by putting the ball high above the shoulder, and this effect is only highlighted on clay. Wawrinka’s one win over Nadal on the surface came in the 2015 season that was maybe Nadal’s worst ever. In the plus column for Wawrinka: he’s never lost a grand slam final, and he’s undefeated against top players in majors. That’s unlikely to hold true: Nadal is the heavy favorite going into this match, but Wawrinka has undoubtedly displayed a bizarre magic in similar situations before.
Root for Wawrinka. Put your money on Nadal.