But once a competive first set went the way of the world number one, the plan became damage limitation and Nadal's "undecima" never looked in any doubt.
In their previous nine meetings, all on clay, the man who took the opening set went on to win the match. That began a run of four consecutive French Open triumphs through 2008. Now, a decade later, the Spaniard is still the undisputed King of Clay.
He set his jaw and stared off into space, downcast, as the love poured down for Nadal after the match, but managed a smile when Nadal predicted he would win a championship here. In 2015, he was defeated by a seemingly-unstoppable Novak Djokovic.
It's been nearly eerie to watch Nadal have such contrasting fortunes on clay-as we saw on Sunday-compared to on grass, with Wimbledon accounting for his worst record in any major over recent years.
Despite the loss, the 24-year-old Austrian said it had been a "great two weeks" for him.
A year later he exacted his revenge over the Swede, but this time in the final for his fifth Roland Garros title.
Thiem started the match quite poorly. Then he struggled to find the court on his opening service game, and handed the Spaniard an easy break.
"It's not even a dream to win here 11 times, because it's impossible to think of something like this".
The next few games were an absolute treat for fans of clay court tennis. His first Grand Slam doesn't come around every week so he had better make the most of it.
"Thiem has to believe".
French Open prize money 2018: How much will Rafael Nadal earn? Could Thiem provide us with a classic final? Thiem has won 7-5 6-3 and lost creditably 7-6 6-4 in Madrid, and won 6-4 6-3 in Rome. He's a good friend, one of these players that the tour needs.
In a 10-minute second game of the second set, Thiem suffered more trauma. A spate of poor play quickly saw him lose the first three games of the set. One down-the-line forehand victor landed right at the baseline and Thiem's shoulders sagged as he muttered to himself. At one point finally, Thiem tried going around the post in the penultimate game, just after a Nadal cross-court backhand return seared so close over the net cord that it made the Parisians murmur. Another forehand victor from Nadal followed, and this time Thiem looked up toward his coach and yelled. It clearly impacted his serve moving forward, but not his ground strokes.
He led by two sets plus a break early in the third when the middle finger on his racket-wielding left hand was cramping so badly he couldn't straighten it. After guzzling water during his visit from the doctor, Nadal was back to playing his unmistakable brand of almost unbeatable clay-court tennis. The two stars have combined to win the past six Slams. He clearly isn't. For now, fans just watch and appreciate this unprecedented greatness for as long as they can.