Rafael Nadal chases different kind of history in French Open final

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Rafael Nadal may be 11-0 in French Open finals, but he’s lost at some point in all 14 Grand Slams when given the chance to draw within two titles of Roger Federer‘s record total.

That’s the real history Nadal chases in Sunday’s final against Dominic Thiem (9 a.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app): an 18th Slam to close in on Federer’s 20. He already owns the Roland Garros record book.

“The day that we start thinking about if it’s incredible or not probably will be the day to do another thing,” Nadal said when told he is trying to double Björn Borg‘s previous Open Era record of six French Open crowns. “So what I have to do today is not think about if it’s incredible. … Even if it’s something I never dreamed about five, six, eight years ago.”

Thiem, who was 11 when Nadal won his first Roland Garros crown in 2005, said he never would have dreamed of playing Nadal in a French Open final. But now it’s happening a second straight year.

The fourth-seeded Austrian can become the first man to beat Novak Djokovic and Nadal in back-to-back matches at a Grand Slam. But he must do it on 23 hours’ rest (to Nadal’s 47) and knowing he’s lost all nine sets to Nadal in three French Open meetings. Nadal is 92-2 in his French Open career.

“It’s an unbelievable opportunity,” Thiem said after dumping top-ranked Djokovic 6-2, 3-6, 7-5, 5-7, 7-5 in a semifinal that started Friday and finished Saturday after four interruptions. “I said last year that I hope to get another chance in a Grand Slam final and hope to do better then, so tomorrow there is the chance.”

Thiem is undoubtedly more accomplished than a year ago, when Nadal told him on court, “I’m sure that you will win here soon.” Thiem has this season beaten Djokovic, Federer (twice, including from a set down in the Indian Wells final for his biggest career title) and, most importantly, Nadal on clay.

“It was six weeks ago,” Thiem said Saturday of defeating Nadal 6-4, 6-4 in the Barcelona semifinals. “It’s way tougher to play him here.”

But Thiem’s record against Nadal on clay overall — 4-7 — is among the best. Djokovic is 7-17. Federer fell to 2-14 when Nadal swept him in Friday’s semifinal.

“I know how to play against him. I have a plan,” Thiem said before the 2018 French Open final, which he lost 6-4, 6-3, 6-2.

Nadal must be aware. He praised Thiem after their first meeting in the 2014 French Open second round.

“This player has a huge potential and could be one of the ones who’s going to replace us,” he said when Thiem was ranked 57th and playing his second major event.

Five years later, Thiem is now, as one journalist put it to Djokovic, the Ringo Starr of men’s tennis. Ranked fourth behind Djokovic, Nadal and Federer.

“I’m sure some people would debate if Ringo Starr was the less famous,” Djokovic replied. “Some people liked him the most.”

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