French Open 2017: Dominic Thiem's clash with Rafael Nadal will pit clay’s past versus clay’s future

You’ve utterly steamrolled defending champion Novak Djokovic in the quarter-final of a Grand Slam on one epic Wednesday, leaving mouths agape and minds stunned — the kind of beating which, they’re saying in Serbia, has “never happened to Djokovic in 12 years”.

Your reward? A meeting with Rafael Nadal on Friday. On clay.

Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem. Images: Reuters/AP

Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem. Images: Reuters/AP

It’s been tennis’ classic one-two punch for several years now: you get past one great, make global headlines, only to succumb to another one soon after. Which is why it takes some effort, a miracle or two — or three — for an ‘outsider’ to achieve success in a Grand Slam.

Only two times in the last 45 Grand Slams, spanning 2006-17, has men’s tennis seen a winner outside of the big five of Nadal, Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka.

On Friday, Dominic Thiem, the 23-year-old Austrian rising star who bludgeons tennis balls for fun now, will be the latest to take up this challenge, in hope of achieving the near-impossible.

He’s been knocking on the door this clay season, and consistently failing at the second hurdle. In Barcelona, Thiem defeated Murray in three sets, his first ever win over the Scot, only to lose the final in straight sets to Nadal. In Rome, he beat Nadal in straight sets, which remains the Spaniard’s only defeat on clay this season, but was hammered 6-1, 6-0 by Djokovic in the final. Both of these, it must be noted, came within 24 hours of his previous win.

In order to overcome this elusive second hurdle, a player needs to truly push his physical and mental boundaries. Or hope for a bit of luck on his side, like in the case of Marin Cilic’s victory in the 2014 US Open which is the last time we had an ‘outsider’ winning a men’s Slam.

Defending champion Nadal had withdrawn from that tournament, while Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka were in the other half of the draw. Federer was Cilic’s only major scalp, in the semis, following which he went on to triumph in the final with ease over Kei Nishikori, whose upsets of both Wawrinka and Djokovic in previous rounds had already taken a toll on him.

Further back, in the 2009 US Open, Juan Martin del Potro, the lovable Argentine, had crushed Nadal in the semis and pulled off a sensational five-set win over Federer in the final. It remains the greatest men’s win in a Slam in the last decade; a truly rare story of unlikely triumph.

Remember Robin Soderling? At Roland Garros in 2009, the Swede had halted Nadal’s 31-match winning streak in what is considered the greatest upset in Open era. He duly lost the final in straight sets to Federer. One year later, he beat Federer and then lost the final to Nadal.

For tennis’ hopefuls, one-Slam wonders or even its big guns hovering just outside of the big five — the likes of Cilic, Del Potro, Nishikori, Milos Raonic and Tomas Berdych — back-to-back success over the big five has proven to be a mini-Holy Grail.

Now, Thiem will have another crack at it. And he’s primed for success.

Thiem’s defeat of Djokovic, in its manner, timing and result, made a massive statement to the tennis world. A triumph studded with the finest, barely believable, shot-making seen this year. He held his nerves to win a close first-set tie break and then raced to the finish line by bageling the Serbian in the third set (which was Djokovic’s first bagel in a Slam since 2005).

Significantly, this victory — or rather, obliteration — had been accomplished just over two weeks after Djokovic had swept the floor with his younger counterpart in the Rome final. An incredible turnaround which was also the Austrian’s first ever win over the Serbian.

It typified Thiem’s climb up the learning curve. He beat Nadal in their previous meeting in May right after losing two finals to the Spaniard. He beat Murray, a potential final opponent should he be able to overcome Nadal, in their last meeting in April after losing to the Scot twice in the previous years. Meanwhile, in his three meetings with Federer, all in 2016, Thiem lost the first and came out on top in the next two. It’s a pattern which holds him in good stead in the future.

But facing a high-flying Nadal at Roland Garros over five sets is, as Thiem rightly recognises, “the toughest match you can imagine” in tennis. The Spaniard’s career win-loss record in five-setters on clay stands at an astonishing 100-2. As close to invincibility as is humanly possible.

Only seven players, including Thiem, have ever beaten Nadal two times or more on clay. Only two — Soderling and Djokovic, once each — have defeated him in five-set matches. In Nadal’s head-to-head with Thiem, which stands at 4-2 to the Spaniard, all six of their meetings have been three-setters on clay. So the next one will be a different ball game altogether.

A resurgent Nadal, himself hunting his 10th French Open title which felt impossible to imagine a year ago, has sailed through to the semi-finals, looking ominously like his old self. He has beaten opponents to a pulp.

Nadal hasn’t dropped a set and has lost only 22 games, an astonishing average of 1.7 games lost per completed set. Thiem hasn’t dropped a set either, although he did face two close tie-breakers, and averages losing only 2.6 games per set. If the Austrian’s Djoko demolition was an empathic declaration of intent, Nadal’s entire tournament has been one.

Thiem’s power-hitting, though, has been relentless and unstoppable of late. Just ask Djokovic and Nadal himself, the game’s two best retrievers, who’ve recently had no answers to it.

There’s a full-bloodedness to the Austrian’s game that is remarkable to watch. An extra zip and arrowing trajectory to his shots — as opposed to the conventional spin-heavy approach on clay — which is frequently generated by a high back-lift and feet-off-the-ground follow through. Combine this with consistent accuracy and you have a big winner.

His blistering one-handed backhand is quickly becoming the best in the game. As Nadal found out earlier and Djokovic later, it does plenty of damage when you try to avoid Thiem’s primary weapon: his forehand. Add to these, the subtlety in making cross-court drop shots, or retrieving them, one big first serve and the knack of producing winners from positions he has no right to.

Philippe Chatrier is on a huge collision course. Clay’s past versus clay’s future. In the present.


Akarsh Sharma is a sports traveller and writer who contributes to various publications. His work is collated on and he occasionally tweets here.

Updated Date: Jun 09, 2017 15:05 PM

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