2017 Roland Garros Final Preview


We know pretty much the story of this final: Rafael Nadal has put himself into position to win La Decima. People have been talking about this for awhile, sure a bit last year when he seemed to be finding his confidence before pulling-out of the major mid tournament.

The talk has gotten much louder this year, especially as the tour began its clay pilgrimage to Paris in Monte Carlo back in April. Nadal had already laid the foundation of this year’s run with a terrific start to the season on hard courts with finals appearances in Melbourne and Miami. 2017 Monte Carlo offered confirmation of the Spaniard’s confidence, consolidated his early 2017 form and by winning La Decima there along the gorgeous Mediterranean, the clay horizon seemed to open for the king and his entourage to make their steady and victorious assault on Roland Garros.

Keep in mind, the collapse of Novak and Andy have added to this sunny forecast for Rafa, but we’ve sensed, especially after seeing him demolish his draw these past two weeks in Paris, that even their form wouldn’t have been terribly significant.

Rafa is moving the chains, so to speak.

I want to talk of the bigger picture here for a second.

Putting tomorrow or any match/tournament into perspective for me often involves seeing the bigger picture, how history most likely comes into play here. In the end, we can talk and predict and argue all we want about this and that player, but history, the results of these matches on the court over time tell the real story. There might even be a kind of predetermination going on here (inference, interpretation and argument can clarify these perspectives. People who have only been watching tennis for 10-15 years have an inherent difficulty in reading these tea leaves).

For instance, I could venture to explain Novak’s fall by saying that it’s almost predictable historically, forget about his own history of roller coaster form that dates back to 2008. John McEnroe said, during yesterday’s call, as the booth was discussing Rafa’s dominance, that the two best players of all time are Federer and Rafa. Even that has such a presentistic flaw, but tough to disagree completely when you consider 2017 Fedal.

He then added that Djokovic is probably top 6, “depending upon who you ask.”

Folks, history tells the story much more convincingly than any commentator or fangirl writing on her fanblog or twitter feed.

So, does the big tennis narrative include Rafa winning La Decima in Paris tomorrow? Seems almost obvious, a foregone conclusion given the events that have led up to this final tomorrow. In other words, try to think how history will tell this story of tennis. Federer winning #18 in Melbourne seems pretty germane to Federer’s story. He’s been the most prolific, most enduring great of his major-winning era.

Djokovic has always seemed second tier to Fedal (unless you breakdown the numbers and try to excavate a statistical argument, saying he’s been part of some kind of ATP conspiracy, etc.). The Djokollapse, in other words, works with that narrative.

That’s partly how I make sense of some of these events.

La Decima seems to fit historically with Nadal’s legacy; add to that the way he’s playing, the way he dismissed the Thiem obstacle yesterday and we have ourselves a slam dunk prediction.

His form is simply phenomenal. Early in that match, after each player opened with breaks of serve, one could see the two settling into a match that would put the weight and angles of ground strokes at a premium. If Thiem could find the rhythm to exchange with Nadal, use both the CC and DTL effectively, he could perhaps push Nadal back and establish control of the points and the match.

But this is so much easier said than done, as we know. First of all, Nadal had no trouble hitting with Thiem from the BL although very early in that first set there were a few rallies that showed promise from the young Austrian. His ball-striking is difficult to deal with if he’s between the lines and moving the ball, staying forward and not getting pushed too far back.

As we know with Nadal, a break of serve early in a set can be the end of any hope the opponent may have. I felt like Thiem holding serve there in the first, forcing Nadal to serve it out was a good development for Dominic. He seemed to have his whereabouts, more or less.

But the Spaniard’s clay game is so rich. He has so many ways to devour his opponent. What spelled absolute doom yesterday was watching Thiem, as the match wore-on, down a set, try to hold serve as each point was like he was getting beat-up by an older brother or cousin, almost 10 years older than he. This is what, aside from the skill and technique of clay and Nadal’s mastery of those elements, kills the Nadal clay foe: his unwavering point-by-point desperation. Nadal isn’t taking-off a single point. There is no easy hold against Rafa on clay.

Thiem’s attempt to hit through Nadal on nearly every point got pretty old pretty quick. He’s strong, but needs to harness that strength. He needs to mature.

Nadal has been associated with clay and Roland Garros dominance since 2005. Interestingly, someone pointed-out that Roland Garros is particularly suited for Nadal’s defensive approach because of the size of the court. Look at an aerial of Roland Garros vs. Monte Carlo or Rome. One can see the size difference here. More room has given this clay monster scrambler more space to retrieve, frustrate and find his leverage in these marathon points that weaken his opponents’ resolve and stamina.

Clearly, if Mcshow Tennis is putting money on this match, it would seem very unreasonable not to bet on Nadal here in 3 or 4 sets.

However, let’s discuss the crazy alternative of Wawrinka winning this match.

  1. First, let’s start with the number of sets. Nadal could very likely win in 3 sets (you are nodding while reading this). Or Stan puts together a little run, wins a set and extends his demise to 4 sets. Could happen. You agree with this, as well.

    What if it goes 5 sets? Do you see Nadal winning in 5 sets? This would be getting away from Nadal if it goes 5. Stan then would have won 2 sets, have belief, and then we get into a war of attrition, stamina, fortitude, etc. If this goes 5, all bets are off. Most likely it doesn’t go 5; but if it does, Paris is being renamed “Upset City.” Stamina Wawrinka aka Stanimal aka Stan the Man will have achieved the impossible. Even losing in 5 sets to Nadal would be amazing, especially for us as we would witness one of the true great matches of all time, with so much on the line.

  2. Stan’s beaten Rafa in a major final. Nadal did have some injury here, but that wasn’t confusing Stan much: he thought it was some of that gamesmanship the Spaniard employs so strategically. Stan wasn’t buying this. Stan is not (I might argue) intimidated by Rafa. Rafa has had trouble with these types of players (Wawrinka, Tsonga, Djokovic, Soderling, etc). The players who more or less stand up to Rafa have seemed to have at least a more fighting chance. Rafa bullies opponents, and I don’t think Stan can be bullied at this point.
  3. Stan’s form. He’s in zone. Stanimal has arrived. Is this enough to beat Nadal in Paris? Most likely no. But he’s murdering the ball from both wings. What bodes well in addition here is the SF was not peak Stan. He survived that match. He needed that fifth set (and the fourth set TB) to survive. This was not the prettiest match from Stan ala FO and USO finals versus Djokovic. If Stan’s level rises, that’s just more of that heavy clay offense that Nadal hasn’t seen in any other opponent.

    And let’s mention the difference between Stan and Thiem, two players with seemingly similar style. Stan is just so much more mature. Obviously. The mental part of the game, especially. Stan will not get flustered like Thiem did. Thiem was dead by the second set yesterday. Stan doesn’t seem to worry about these parts of the match. He is a slow starter. If he loses the first set to Nadal tomorrow, this is not the same, imho. Stan will not get flustered. Remember, his three majors are against Rafa and Djokovic x2 (during Djokovic’s apparent peak).

    He will have the ability to moon-ball with Rafa; he has a much more stable BL game than Thiem (this is obvious). If Stan is hitting lines, mashing from both sides, which can describe that Stanimal form, Rafa’s hands are full.

  4. Lastly, I have to mention the Magnus Norman factor. Norman coached Soderling when the Swede shocked Roland Garros in 2009. He was driving the Stan bus in 2014 when Stan won his first major by beating Rafa in Melbourne.

    Who knows what those two are talking about right now, but you have to suspect that there is some optimism in camp Wawrinka.

Obviously, folks, Rafa is a HEAVY favorite tomorrow to secure his second La Decima. He’s earned it, he’s focused and seems really pretty much unplayable right now. Even the historical tennis tea leaves say a Rafa win is happening.

But the enigma of Stan Wawrinka has reared its head once again. You have to think Rafa would rather be playing a malleable Murray.

And that’s another factor: Stan had to withstand some world-class defense yesterday to survive Murray. It’s not like he beat some journeyman; Murray rose to the occasion in Paris.

Hopefully the match is entertaining. Stan going away would not be a surprise. But imagine Stan holding his own. Imagine the boys getting out to a set a piece.

A guy can dream 😉

Enjoy the match!

12 thoughts on “2017 Roland Garros Final Preview

  1. I could edit the post, but let’s remind ourselves that Soderling and Wawrinka are similar too in their over-powering tennis.

    It’s fun to imagine these patterns and possibilities.



  2. clint grike

    Great post. I like the point (if I understand it) about ‘predetermination’. Sometimes a narrative can be so compelling that events seem inevitable. What was crazy about the nadal – thiem semi was that there was a competing narrative that was almost equally compelling: the rise of a new champion. All the pieces seemed to be falling into place. But nobody told Rafa. The Bull would not be denied. And I can’t see Stan, even in full beast mode, denying him now.


    1. Thanks, Clint. Yes, that’s the idea about a “narrative,” which we can see unfolding about a match, a tournament, but we can extend into years, identify the patterns to see the narrative of a career.

      I agree the SF had that competing narrative, but at this point in a major aren’t there usually many narratives at stake? Think of the massive crossroads we were at in Melbourne. If Nadal wins that, wow. Think of what that says about Federer’s career, or what it would have said about Nadal, #15, French Open on the horizon. So, in these big matches at the business ends of these tournaments, usually big plot-twists are going down.

      I entertained the idea of Djokovic making a little run here. If he’d beaten Thiem, etc. But Nadal does look too dominant either way. Need less to say, Djokovic’s narrative continues down that path that’s pretty unfortunate given where he was a year ago. My major point of the Djokollapse is how tragic that was at the end of 2016.

      End of year #1 is a big stat (Sampras has the most, 5 or 6). WTFs are huge too. The Serb was so far out front points-wise that even losing a WTF shouldn’t have stripped him of #1. At least I value that kind of stuff. I know others do, as well.

      Let’s not forget the Wawrinka narrative here at RG. 3-0 in major finals, the late bloomer who goes beast mode, etc. And he just doesn’t seem to care, which is almost funny.

      Will go months before finding his form (usually in a major) and then becomes unplayable, etc.

      Loses a set. No worries. Gets a bit errant, blows a game, or a break of serve. Oh well.

      I just hope he can stick around.


      1. clint grike

        Let me clarify. The point was that there aren’t usually alternative narratives where each has a feeling of inevitability (based on historical patterns) about it. Maybe that’s too strong a description of the Thiem narrative. But based on the progress made in his previous games against rafa and his dismantling of the reigning champion some of your most prescient posters (well, one, but a very prescient one) saw the writing on the wall, so to speak. It’s rare (or is it?) when both possible outcomes feel predestined.

        Does that make it clearer? Not suggesting that there isn’t usually a lot at stake for the legacies of the top players. As you say the stakes were huge in melbourne. And what happened there was an insanely huge plot twist. But fed beating rafa in the final felt anything but inevitable! I can still hardly believe what happened in melbourne.

        The Stan Murray semi also was a high stakes game I guess. I don’t buy this ‘big four’ thing. I think these two players are competing for the title of ‘the best of the rest’ and Stan struck a blow on Friday.

        Agree of course that there’s a pretty compelling narrative about Stan in finals. If he’s playing well enough to make the final he wins. I was pretty confident about him beating novak in last year’s us open. But I feel – as I take it you do too – that nadal is just playing too well to be beaten tomorrow.

        Agree about djokovic.


      2. The Thiem narrative is a bit early, I think. He made the SF last year and got beat pretty badly. He did well this year throughout the clay calendar pretty much the only consistent competition to Nadal. . .but we need to see a bit more from Thiem.

        Summarize the clay season for me: it’s Nadal and Thiem, with some appearances from Goffin and Ramos, with Djokovic coming in late and Zverev with the encore in Rome. There wasn’t much beyond that, really.

        I had Nadal winning that SF pretty convincingly. But, as we previewed: you never know, which is why they play the match/game, as the saying goes.

        The Nadal dominance then, based on that thought process above, though totally definitive, still has a shred of vulnerability (I have to contradict myself here a bit by saying that, like anyone who watched the SF, the eye-test says Rafa is in massive form, destroying anything in his path).

        Still, he hasn’t beaten a top guy in form. Thiem is a baby top-10er. Again, let me clarify: the eye-test, which I put a lot of stock in, says Rafa is Rolling! He wins tomorrow probably 85% chance, and that might be low.

        Prior to the Nadal Thiem SF, some people might have needed a bit more evidence of Nadal’s historical form; his draw was pretty soft and even though he’d pretty much swept the clay season, the the challenges weren’t giving us quite enough evidence to say Nadal is unstoppable.

        He beat Thiem, who beat Djokovic (which we see is not as big of an upset given the free-fall of the Serb), but anyone could see Thiem was way out of his league on that stage with Nadal.

        Nadal, no doubt, has that presence and that level right now. So we should see the inevitable.

        But this is the first top guy playing at a top level that Nadal has played this spring. Just saying.

        No way do I bet against the King, but I’ve at least made some case for how the Swiss could make this interesting (my post and this comment).

        And back to our point, the Nadal narrative is bigger than the Stan narrative. No doubt. Hence, based on my theory, beyond the tennis, Nadal is crowned.

        But Stan is an outlier. He doesn’t fit the model everyone else is using. If ageism plays a part, the advantage goes to Stan. Nadal is 31 and winning majors at 31 is rare. Stan is 32, but he hasn’t had the same kind of career as the big 4, the mileage, etc.

        That was what Stan actually said when someone asked him, isn’t this big 4 thing BS since you have the same number of majors as Andy? Stan replied, no I am not part of the big 4 because Andy (along with the other three) have consistently made the SF and F of these tournaments for the last 8-10 years or so.

        Therefore: The FO final is the King vs the Enigma.


  3. clint grike

    Yeah wasn’t surprised by the nadal win or even that shocked by the manner of it. Rafa did what rafa does to pretenders to his throne. But having become a beliemer it was deflating. I will share my thoughts on Stan v Andy at more length at some point. Obviously if the ‘big 4’ is about consistent excellence then Stan the Enigma is no part of that. But I would make a case that in terms of legacy and place in the pantheon he is not behind Murray. His valleys are lower but his peaks are higher. Anyway you make some great points about why he shouldn’t be counted out and maybe I shouldn’t be so down on his chances (which are higher than Murray’s would have been). I certainly hope he sticks around!


    1. I agree Stan’s legacy is probably greater than Murray’s. Stan is the man. Now, let’s think the unthinkable, hope for a brilliant match.


  4. wilfried

    Great post, Matt.
    Just a few thoughts I’d like to add.
    Judging by the current weather here and the weather forecast for Paris, the Roland Garros final will be played this afternoon in near-perfect sunny conditions.
    Heavy conditions favor players who take huge backswings and require more time and a slower surface to maximise these strengths (Söderling, Stan, Murray,…), and in these conditions the balls take more their own time to cross the net.
    Sunny conditions provide for a dry clay surface and moderate height of ball bounce on the clay, which protects the SHBH player from having to hit at shoulder height, and spares us hopefulley of watching too many shanks on the backhand side against a heavy ball and loopy bounce. They also provide for a tad ligther ball, which flies and takes off a bit faster, although we have to keep in mind what Thomas Muster said about the current tennis balls (made with other material and less pressure than they used to be in the past).
    So there are pros and cons for Stan’s attacking game as far as the conditions are concerned.
    Both players usually are slow starters.
    I expect Nadal to be piling up the pressure on Stan from the start though, because he will try to dominate proceedings.
    Rafael’s ability to take the ball early with his FH and easily redirect shots is a threat for Stan, because the Stanimal is not such a fast mover.
    So Stan will need to be prepared for constant pressure in the baseline rallies and adapt his approach to it..
    I hope Stan will cope with this pressure well and will embrace his own agressive approach within reason, allowing that way for a competitive match.
    May the best on the day win.


  5. wilfried

    I should correct my own comment.
    Sunny conditions provide for a faster ball ánd a higher ball bounce.
    These are conditions that favor Nadal’s type of game.


  6. Caligula

    Nadal in 3 sets if Wawrinka plays like he did against Murray in the SF. 4-5 sets and MAAAAAYBE a tossup, IF Stanimal shows up


    1. Utsav

      And it’s done.

      Awesome stuff from the Spaniard. I don’t like him, but hard not to admire him after this kind of display.

      Also shows how crappy the clay field is.


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