Barcelona Open: Dominic Thiem's win over Rafael Nadal proves he's ready to take over rival's clay-court king mantle
Dominic Thiem's fitness, gameplay and mind are all aligned perfectly to be able to shape his future and come close to sharing the rarefied air of Rafael Nadal.
Thiem's fitness, gameplay and mind are all aligned perfectly to be able to shape his future and come close to sharing the rarefied air of Rafael Nadal.
Long touted as the next great clay-courter, Thiem has time and again done more than enough to merit that moniker.
With Rome and Madrid looming, this year Thiem has the confidence of the kind that comes with both big titles and big wins.
Dominic Thiem has always been a clay-court specialist: that is apparent from even a cursory look at his match history. What is also apparent is that in Thiem, tennis has, in a way, found its successor — or at the very least, a claimant to some of the glories of Rafael Nadal. Long touted as the next great clay-courter, Thiem has time and time again, particularly over the last two years, done more than enough to merit that moniker. It is not without reason that he has been dubbed the Prince of Clay to Nadal's king: among other things, he was the only player to beat Nadal on clay in the 2017 and 2018 seasons: in Madrid in 2018 and Rome in 2017.
He is also among the pantheon of tennis players who have won the Orange Bowl, the most prestigious title a junior player can win. Other winners include both Roger Federer and Andy Murray — august company indeed. But back to Saturday's semi-final in Barcelona.
The Nadal of that match was not peak Nadal — indeed, since his shock loss to Fabio Fognini in Monte Carlo last week, the Spaniard has not looked 100 percent on clay. But Barcelona is not only Nadal's home tournament but one where he has a tournament-record 11 titles and he came into this tournament hoping to tie the great Martina Navratilova's 12 titles at the now-defunct Virginia Slims at Chicago— the highest at a single venue. But early double faults from the Spaniard and what can only be described as exemplary tennis from Thiem pretty much sealed the match. Backhand? Forehand? Perfect shot placement? Thiem really did have it all. Delivering constant punches from the baseline and causing Nadal to falter at the net, the Austrian seemed fluid and calm in a way that one might not have expected from someone facing Rafael Nadal at a tournament where the Spaniard last lost a match in 2015.
The 6-4, 6-4 scoreline belies how one-sided the match really was. It was not that Nadal was completely out of it, and lest we forget, he is the greatest clay-courter in tennis history. The court the pair were playing on is named for the 11-time Roland Garros winner: Pista Rafa Nadal. With five double faults and facing repeated breakpoints, it is the match statistics that really show how completely in control of the game Thiem was. The Austrian did not face a single breakpoint until the final game of the match — which he went on to hold from 0-40 to close out the match.
2019 has been perhaps the biggest year of Thiem's career so far; after making his first Grand Slam final last year and two Masters finals, this year he finally took his debut ATP Masters title at Indian Wells, defeating Roger Federer in the final. Regardless, the Austrian was not particularly consistent in the opening months of this season or indeed firing on all guns. He tumbled quickly to Pierre-Hugues Herbert in Round 1 in Qatar and retired from the Australian Open down two sets to love against Australian wild card Alexei Popyrin. Going into Indian Wells with only three match wins under his belt — none of them easily fought, the World No 4 might well have been written off for the tournament. But in perhaps the biggest contest he faced throughout that tournament, he played out of his skin to tame Milos Raonic — and then proceeded to beat Federer for the biggest title of his career yet.
But for all his successes on other surfaces, and his comfort on hard courts, let us make no mistake — Thiem is by far the biggest name on clay since Nadal and Djokovic came onto the scene and that is something his early professional career and his journey as a junior illustrate perfectly.
Thiem's second biggest weapon — apart from a game that has seen stunning forehands, powerful backhands and a litany of slices and drop shots that could beat anyone on his day, is perhaps his ability to truly not break a sweat within a game. His performances at Indian Wells and now in Barcelona should prove that definitively. Not one to be fazed by difficult points in a game, Thiem's mental game is as good as his actual ground play.
Apart from his French Open final last year, where he lost to Nadal, Thiem has reached 18 finals on the ATP Tour since going pro. Fourteen of his 18 finals have on clay and four of those were wins against Nadal himself. Two of Thiem's three Masters finals so far have been on clay, one of which saw him put up a courageous fight against Nadal at a time when he was not as consistent, nor as experienced as he is today.
Almost nothing affected Thiem on Saturday: not being a triple break point down at the end, nor having been at break point with Nadal looking to equalise earlier. In fact, he displayed the same 'Clay Beast Mode' we are so often used to seeing from Nadal himself and that in itself is perhaps the biggest indication of what is to come, still.
It may be a bit early to write off Rafael Nadal from the French Open entirely. But the Nadal that tumbled, first to Fognini and then to Thiem, has not been the Nadal tennis watchers are used to seeing. Perhaps he is conserving energy for the big one, but the numbers paint a rough picture: for the first time since 2004, Rafael Nadal has no titles going into the May tennis season.
The pair's French Open final last year was one-sided to say the very least. This year, though Nadal has somehow looked shaky on a surface where he has seen unparalleled success in the history of the sport.
With Rome and Madrid looming, this year Thiem has the confidence of the kind that comes with both big titles and big wins. Crucially, like Nadal before him, Thiem has adapted to change, bringing two-time Olympic gold medallist and French Open semi-finalist Nicolas Massú onto his team all while still maintaining a good relationship with longtime coach Gunter Bresnik.
It really does appear that Dominic Thiem has found that perfect balance right now. His fitness, gameplay and mind are all aligned just right to be able to shape his future that could, if nothing else, come very close to sharing the rarefied air of his rival on the other side of the net.
The Australian rallied from losing the first set to claim a 3-6, 6-0, 6-3 win over Sabalenka, who needed a medical time-out after the second set for an adductor injury.
Andy Murray has been out of action since suffering groin pain ahead of the Miami Open in March.
Nadal is the top seed in Madrid and will play either compatriot Carlos Alcaraz or the Frenchman Adrian Mannarino in the first round while he is due to meet Dominic Thiem, a finalist at the French Open in 2018 and 2019, in the last four.