French Open 2019: 'Prince of clay' Dominic Thiem looks to snatch Rafael Nadal's crown in potentially career-defining tournament

Of all the players whose names are bandied about as successors to Rafael Nadal, perhaps none has been more highly touted than Dominic Thiem. It is not without reason that he is frequently described as the “Prince of Clay”. With a title at Indian Wells and another at Barcelona already in the bag, even though Thiem’s season has not been as consistent as he may have liked, he certainly is a frontrunner at any Grand Slam. Add to this his success as a clay-courter, and in Dominic Thiem, you have a recipe for success, particularly at his level of fitness.

Make no mistake — Dominic Thiem is here to stay

In the span of few months, he has defeated Nadal, and put up a spirited battle against Novak Djokovic. Already, beating a man who is called the King of Clay and is unequivocally, historically the greatest player on that surface, is remarkable.

Last year, Thiem lost in straight sets to a seemingly unbeatable Rafael Nadal, and for Nadal, that was his own record-breaking unadecima.

 French Open 2019: Prince of clay Dominic Thiem looks to snatch Rafael Nadals crown in potentially career-defining tournament

Austria's Dominic Thiem in action during his Madrid Open semi-final match against Serbia's Novak Djokovic. Reuters

But even a quick look at Thiem’s career shows just how comfortable he is on the clay. Two of his three Masters finals have been on clay, and although the Austrian has won neither, he did give Rafael Nadal a tough time in Madrid in 2017.

Roland Garros 2018 — before the tournament

2018 saw Thiem make his first ever Grand Slam final — on this very stage — and just like 2019, he had a very strong showing going into the tournament.

Last year, Thiem was a thorn in Nadal’s side in Madrid, as he had almost been the previous year. He would end up ousting the Spaniard in the quarter-finals, thereby ending his 21-match winning streak on clay. Thiem did make the finals on that occasion but lost to Alexander Zverev. Right before the French Open began, Thiem won top honours at Lyon, for what would be his 10th ATP Tour-level title.

His French Open performance, of course, was truly worthy of someone looking for the title of the Prince of Clay. Avenging his Madrid loss to Zverev, he defeated the German in straight sets in the quarter-final before his eventual loss to Nadal.

A clay court past

Even though the 2018 French Open finalist was successful on all surfaces as a junior, on the Futures and Challenger circuit, he firmly — and loudly — announced his clay court prowess to the world. Every single final he made on the Challengers and Future circuits — 13 combined, were on clay, with Thiem winning seven.

Now, it has been just about 8 years since Thiem first made the finals of the French Open — then, in the boys singles at Roland Garros 2011, Thiem lost a closely fought three-set match against American Bjorn Fratangelo.

Clay court dominance, and how

Over his career so far, Dominic Thiem has made 20 ATP finals. Of those, 15 have been on clay, one of them, of course, the 2018 French Open. Of his 15 clay court finals on the ATP Tour, Thiem has won nine. Nine of Thiem's 13 overall titles - nearly 70%, are on his favoured surface, clay.

2019: The Year of Thiem

To say this year has been special for the Austrian would be quite the understatement. 25-year-old Thiem this year took his maiden Masters-level title at Indian Wells, with a finals victory over none other than Roger Federer. Soon after, on the clay courts of Barcelona and playing Rafael Nadal on Pista Rafael Nadal, Thiem won the Barcelona Open without dropping a single set.

Facing an in-form Rafael Nadal, who had eleven titles on that surface, no one would have blamed Thiem for feeling at least a little pressure, given the circumstances.

This year, Thiem has also made some drastic changes that are likely to improve his clay-court chances dramatically, changes that it is very likely were made with that exact goal in mind. Having worked with longtime coach Gunter Bresnik for nearly 15 years, Thiem parted ways with Bresnik following Indian Wells, and brought on Chilean professional Nicolas Massú, who is known primarily for his skill on the soil. 39-year-old Massu comes with pedigree of his own — he made 15 ATP Tour-Level finals of his own, 12 of them on clay — much like his young charge of the past few months.

The Chilean also won gold at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens in the men’s singles and doubles. Massu already brings a wealth of his own experience to the court, but as Thiem succinctly put it last year, the 39-year-old has played against many of the players Thiem has himself been facing across the net. The Austrian’s brand of attacking baseline play - so similar in some ways to Nadal himself, has been supplemented and complemented by the skills he has developed in the past two years — in which time he has been drastically improving on already good results — so perhaps the only way from up, for him, is even further up.

Thiem’s lead-up to the French Open last year was immense. This year, it has been even better. With wins over the Big 3 in the span of a few months, particularly two of tennis’ greatest clay-courters in Nadal and Djokovic, Thiem has not just proved his own talent, but the fact that he could well be one of them himself.

A heavy hitter with a much-coveted single-handed backhand, Thiem is known for his ability to generate great spin on the ball. Even his passing shots are said to generate more spin than the average professional’s. With a powerful forehand, a backhand that won’t quit, and youth and athleticism firmly on his side, Thiem is now also backed up by wins over both of the biggest contenders at the French Open this year — Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, both in the past month.

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Updated Date: May 26, 2019 22:19:21 IST