On men’s semifinal day at Roland Garros, most would have considered Nadal’s tussle with Thiem to be the one to watch. After all, the duo tallied the most victories on clay this season and Thiem is one of the rare players to have toppled the Spaniard twice on dirt.
But it turns out that Wawrinka’s match with Andy Murray — a battle between veterans who’ve won three majors — was the standout encounter.
And by some distance.
While Nadal crushed the young Austrian 6-3 6-4 6-0 in two hours to become the third man in history — after Bill Tilden and Wawrinka’s pal Roger Federer — to reach the final at one grand slam 10 times, the Swiss prevailed over the world No. 1 6-7 (6-8) 6-3 5-7 7-6 (7-3) 6-1 in a four-and-a-half hour classic.
The 32-year-old Wawrinka made some history, too, becoming the oldest man to make a French Open final since Niki Pilic 1973.
It was probably sweeter for Wawrinka because he managed to win despite blowing break leads in the first and third sets.
The 2015 champion struck a staggering 87 winners — on the clay, against one of the game’s elite defenders and in windy, tricky conditions. He persevered despite Murray’s splendid retrieving and variety.
There were, as Wawrinka put it, some “crazy rallies.”
“He’s going to do incredible defense, play the right tennis in the right moment,” he said. “That’s why he’s No. 1 in the world.
“So when you enter in a grand slam against him, you have to accept that. You need to keep trying to focus on what you do, keep trying. I was trying to focus on my game.”
His task will be even harder in the final, since Nadal hasn’t lost a set and conceded a mere 29 games. Getting to No. 10 would make Nadal the first player in the Open Era to win the same grand slam 10 times.
Nadal certainly won’t be taking Wawrinka lightly Sunday, though: He is a perfect 3-0 in grand slam finals, memorably topping the left-hander to open his account in Melbourne in 2014.
Stopping Wawrinka can be difficult
Wawrinka may have benefited from good fortune in that contest — Nadal sustained a back injury in the warmup and was far from 100% — yet there is no doubting Wawrinka’s ability to blow winners past anyone. He showed that again Friday.
Even if he trails Nadal 15-3 in their head-to-heads, he does possess a victory over him on clay.
“It’s true that when he hits hard, he hits really hard,” said Nadal. “Stopping him can be difficult. I do not want him to play his game, which means I need to make sure I don’t let him be in that position where he can hit hard.”
Besides going for No. 10 in Paris, Nadal — who pulled out of the 2016 French Open with a wrist injury in the first week — is attempting to end a three-year drought in majors. He agonizingly lost to Federer in the Australian Open final, blowing a break lead in the fifth set.
How Wawrinka holds up physically after such a long duel with Murray will no doubt be something to ponder, but he is extremely strong and last year at the US Open defeated Novak Djokovic in the finale after tough matches along the way.
That Wawrinka hadn’t dropped a set prior to the semifinals helped him against Murray. He had the momentum after winning the fourth set and also the fresher legs.
Crucially for Wawrinka, he didn’t waver mentally, after blowing a 5-3 lead in the first set — and holding a set point on his own serve in the first-set tiebreak — and 4-2 in the third.
The fourth set however is the one Murray will rue.
Despite having a 15-30 lead three straight times on the Wawrinka serve, the 2016 finalist failed to break through.
No contest in fifth
After Wawrinka won the fourth-set tiebreak, Murray waned, trailing 4-0 in the fifth in about 20 minutes.
Still he adopted the glass half-full approach, likely mindful of the poor form by his standards he has exhibited in 2017. A bout of the shingles and elbow injury have pegged him back.
“I’m proud of the tournament I had,” Murray said. “I did well considering. You know, I was one tiebreak away from getting to the final when I came in really struggling.
“So I have to be proud of that.”
Murray’s earlier than expected losses heading into the French Open played a part in Friday’s result, he said.
“Maybe the lack of matches hurt me a little bit in the end today. That was a very high intensity match. A lot of long points.
“When you haven’t been playing loads, over four, four-and-a-half hours, that can catch up to you a little bit. So I only have myself to blame for that, for the way I played coming into the tournament.”
Wawrinka surrendering the first set ultimately didn’t affect him but the same couldn’t be said about Thiem.
Indeed it may have only been the first few games, but letting an early lead slip against Nadal was too much for him to overcome.
He broke for 1-0, only to get broken back immediately. Thiem then earned more break points but couldn’t capitalize, with Nadal then breaking for 3-1. Nadal fended off further break points and held for 4-1.
That was it.
“Sometimes a match changes after the first game in a set,” said the 14-time grand slam winner. “That’s where you can sort of anticipate how the match is going to finish.
“He had several opportunities today, and he missed them. In the meantime, I played a very solid game. I never let him dominate the game.”
On Sunday Nadal will discover if the numbers add up.