Rafael Nadal reaches 11th French Open final, will face Dominic Thiem

What kind of a challenge does Dominic Thiem face in Sunday’s French Open final against Rafael Nadal?

If you listen to Thiem’s coach, Gunter Bresnik, his chances of winning are akin to landing a million dollar jackpot.

“It’s so, so difficult to compete with the guy because he is the best competitor in sport in my opinion, of all time,” Bresnik told a small group of reporters. “It doesn’t matter what sport.

“He is physically strong and you know he’s not going to give up at any score. He’s not going to give you a free point if he is up 5-0 or down 5-0.

“That’s why the guy was dominating clay-court tennis the last 14 years like no one else before and nobody ever will.”

He didn’t stop there, such was his extended praise for the recently turned 32-year-old.

“To beat Nadal in Paris, on the center court in the finals, I think this is, it’s not impossible, but it’s maybe one of the biggest (challenges) you can have in tennis.”

Nadal certainly lived up to his “King of Clay” nickname in Friday’s semifinal against Juan Martin del Potro, crushing the sentimental favorite 6-4 6-1 6-2 to reach a record 11th final at Roland Garros. The world No. 1 became the second man in the Open Era to make 11 finals at the same major, tying friendly rival Roger Federer’s mark on the grass of the All England Club.

But while the Swiss has succumbed in three title matches in southwest London, Nadal has never tasted defeat in a final in southwest Paris, as Bresnik — and the rest of the tennis world — knows.

Not throwing in towel

Yet Bresnik obviously isn’t throwing in the towel. And for good reason.

Thiem, who ended the Cinderella stint of Italy’s Marco Cecchinato 7-5 7-6 (12-10) 6-1, is one of only three men to topple Nadal at least three times on the “terre battue.”

The world No. 8 made history of his own Friday, becoming the second Austrian male to advance to a grand slam final after the hard-nosed 1995 French Open champion, Thomas Muster.

The 24-year-old Thiem was the last player to get the better of Nadal, too, last month at the Madrid Open.

“I think it helps, definitely, knowing that you were the last guy to beat him,” said Bresnik, whose association with Thiem spans more than 15 years.

Then again, Thiem upended Nadal in Rome last year before being thumped by the Spaniard in the French Open semifinals weeks later 6-3 6-4 6-0.

“With Nadal, you need to play at the top level, I would say, minimum, three hours, otherwise don’t even think about having a chance to win,” said Bresnik.

Thiem insists he has a “plan” against Nadal, one which he hopes translates to the longer best-of-five set format.

“He’s a big favorite against everybody,” he told reporters. “Still, I know how to play against him. I have a plan. I will try everything that my plan is going to work out a little bit here and not only in Madrid or in Rome.”

Nadal acknowledged that Thiem has been a “very complex” opponent.

Thiem ‘one of the best’ on clay

“He’s one of the best players in the world on this surface,” Nadal told reporters.

“You know when you start the clay court season that Dominic, he’s one of these players that have the chance to win every tournament that he’s playing, and maybe even more here in Roland Garros because he’s strong physically. He has the power.”

Yet so does Nadal.

He appeared to be in near peak form against del Potro — once the all important first set went in his favor. Nadal had more trouble with another Argentine, the diminutive Diego Schwartzman, in the quarterfinals.

Del Potro’s play this tournament, plus his history against Nadal — the fifth seed won two of their three previous duels and was the last foe to down the Mallorcan in a grand slam semifinal in 2009 — suggested a close tilt. Or at least not a blowout.

And the first set was indeed tight, even with del Potro calling for the trainer at 2-3. He has undergone four wrist surgeries but the issue, thankfully, was a minor hip complaint.

Del Potro missed six break points in the opener, including three at 4-4. Nadal claimed the final two points of that game in contrasting fashion, ripping a cross-court backhand that left the crowd gasping and deftly hitting a volley off a tricky net cord.

“I think that was my chance of the match,” Del Potro said of the ninth game.

Nadal broke in the lone game he had an opportunity to wrap up the set.

When del Potro avoided a bagel in the sixth game of the second, he raised his arms in celebration.

Could only smile

And on the penultimate point of the semifinal, after being run ragged, the 2009 US Open winner could only offer up a smile.

At No. 72, Cecchinato was the lowest-ranked men’s semifinalist at the French Open since 1999. He impressively recovered from a slow start to make the first set close.

The key moment, though, was the gripping second-set tiebreak.

Thiem led 6-3 but suddenly lost focus. Cecchinato, who upset Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals after winning two pulsating tiebreaks, rallied and even held three set points prior to Thiem triumphing 12-10.

Cecchinato was understandably deflated — the third set lasted a mere 24 minutes — and Thiem officially booked his spot in the final, to his mother’s delight.

“I cannot believe it now,” Karin Thiem, a tennis coach, told a group of reporters. “I was so nervous before the match because I knew it would be a tough match. But now I am so happy. I need time I think.”

The smile never left her face.

Looking ahead to the final and recalling Thiem’s victory over Nadal in Madrid, a tired del Potro uttered: “Maybe on Sunday (Thiem) can repeat.”

He concluded, however, by saying: “It’s not easy. I have been on court just couple of minutes ago. It was almost impossible to beat Nadal.”