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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.”

FRENCH OPEN: TV Schedule | Scores | Men’s Draw | Women’s Draw

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Justin Morneau nixes Olympic baseball qualifying return

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Justin Morneau, the 2006 AL MVP with the Minnesota Twins, was taken off Canada’s Olympic baseball qualifying roster before he would have played his first competitive game in more than two years.

Morneau, 38, experienced an unspecified setback in training and was replaced on Canada’s roster for next month’s Premier12. The global tournament marks the first opportunity for many world baseball powers to qualify for the sport’s return to the Olympics.

Morneau never played in the Olympics before baseball was cut from the Games after 2008; active MLB players have never competed in the Games. But he was on Canada’s roster at all four World Baseball Classics from 2006 through 2017.

At November’s Premier12, the top nation from North and South America will qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. Japan and Israel are already qualified. Those that do not qualify will get another chance next year.

Morneau could become the second Major League Baseball MVP to play Olympic baseball as a medal sport. The other was Jason Giambi, who made the U.S. team in 1992, the same summer he was drafted in the second round by the Oakland Athletics.

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MORE: Joe Girardi replaced as U.S. baseball manager by World Series champion

Kolohe Andino is first U.S. Olympic surfing qualifier; Kelly Slater faces last chance

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Kolohe Andino is the first American to qualify for surfing’s Olympic debut, which leaves one spot left for 47-year-old Kelly Slater to chase at the final contest of the season.

Andino, a 25-year-old Californian whose first name means “rascal” in Hawaiian, clinched his place in Tokyo on Friday at the penultimate stop on the World Surf League Championship Tour in Portugal. He is ranked fifth in the world, trailing a trio of Brazilians.

One more American man will join Andino on the Olympic team. It will be one of Slater, the 11-time world champion, John John Florence, the 2016 and 2017 World champion, and rising 22-year-old Hawaiian Seth Moniz.

Slater was handed a golden opportunity to qualify when Florence announced in early July that he tore an ACL for the second time in 13 months. Florence had won two of the first five events this season.

Slater has been chasing the sidelined Florence in the standings ever since. But it has not been easy.

Slater hasn’t made the quarterfinals in any of his last seven contests going into December’s finale — the prestigious Billabong Pipeline Masters on the North Shore of Oahu.

“Ninth place, to me, used to be a pretty awful result. I’m used to at least a quarterfinal on for most of my career,” he said in July, noting a back injury. “I’m not horrified by my results, but I’m also not surprised. Maybe other people are because everyone focuses on my age and that kind of thing. It’s not like I’m going to all of a sudden forget how to do this thing, you know?”

Slater, who won the Pipe Masters seven times between 1992 and 2013, must reach the quarterfinals at this year’s event to have any chance of passing Florence to qualify for the Olympics.

Complicating matters: Florence said in August it was his “goal to get better for Pipeline in case I have to come back and compete and gain points,” according to ESPN.com. If Florence does return for the December contest, and makes the quarterfinals, Slater could only pass him with a victory.

Moniz goes into the finale ranked one spot behind Slater, meaning he, too, can grab that second and final Olympic spot with a win or a runner-up.

Slater, who turns 48 on Feb. 11, would be the oldest U.S. Summer Olympic rookie competitor in a sport other than equestrian, sailing or shooting (or art competitions!) in the last 100 years, supplanting Martina Navratilova, according to the OlyMADMen.

MORE: Top U.S. surfer has links to Egg McMuffin, Guinness World Record holder

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