The inheritors are on their way. The question that tennis has grappled with this decade, may finally be answered this season. After a glorious era of golden hued stars who refused to tire from winning, Dominic Thiem (23) and Alexander Zverev (20) are putting their hands up to announce their desire to inherit the rich legacy of the Big Four — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
Thiem’s 6-3, 6-4 victory over Rafael Nadal was impressive for its audacity as much as its brilliance, while Zverev’s obdurate victory over Milos Raonic underlined his growing reputation.
Nadal made the French Open seem like a foregone conclusion, but Thiem and Zverev are reminding us that Paris could turn into a bloody battleground. Roland Garros could after all turn into a stage for an intriguing spectacle later this month. On the script will be a tussle between the youthful ambition of the next generation stars against the dogged determination of an ageing yet imperial Nadal.
The Austrian, twice defeated this season at the hands of Nadal, showed enormous courage and commitment to get the better of Nadal. Any victory over the 14-time Grand Slam champion is an event of significance, more so when on clay.
The seventh ranked Thiem absorbed a bruising defeat in Barcelona, but played much better in Madrid before losing again in the final. A tenth title in Monte Carlo and Barcelona buttressed with a seventh triumphant run in Madrid, was quickly turning the clay season into an Emperor’s procession to Paris.
Energised from a break through the second half of 2016, Nadal was enjoying great success. It took another imperial conqueror — Federer — to tame Nadal in Melbourne, Indian Wells and Miami, but that was on hard courts. On his favourite red dirt, Nadal started to appear invincible, even raising visions of an unprecedented clean sweep of titles.
Until he ran into Thiem for a third time this season. The young Austrian has enjoyed his best results on the red surface. He made the French Open semi-finals in 2015, his best Grand Slam result to date and also beat Nadal in Acapulco last season. But Nadal was far from fit at the time, still battling physical scars and the turbulence of a cloudy mind.
But this victory in Rome does not come with an asterisk. It was quite simply the brutal power that Thiem produced off the ground, that sent Rafa side to side, deep behind the baseline. The Spaniard was so far back, he may have kept wickets to a pace bowler at that distance.
The audacity of Thiem’s stroke making, especially off the forehand, was mighty impressive. But even more imposing was the manner in which he held fort when Nadal threatened to derail his progress with some vintage tenacity.
Thiem raced away to a 5-1 first set lead, with two breaks of serve. Nadal fought back with characteristic determination to win three games in a row, inching ever closer. The tenth game was all too vital for the Austrian and he showed remarkable resolve to grind out a tough hold to bag the set.
“I knew that if I want to have a chance, then I have to do something different and be more aggressive,” Thiem told the media.
“I knew that if it goes in — everything — maybe I have a chance. If not, maybe I (will) also lose easy. But today was one of these days where I really felt the ball great on the racket, and a lot of risky shots went in. It was a very, very good performance, and I think probably one of my best matches.”
Nadal was looking to make a dent early in the second to somehow turn the tide that was threatening to sink him. As hard as Nadal tried, Thiem refused to flinch. He played some of the most attacking tennis anyone ever managed against Nadal on clay to keep up the pressure.
When Nadal yielded a break in the seventh game, the writing was on the wall. But you are never really safe against Nadal, not till the last point has been won.
“Against him, if you’re up a set and a break, you never feel safe because he just doesn’t give you one easy point,” reminded Thiem. “He’s this kind of player who never gives up, probably the best fighter in tennis. Especially on clay it’s, for sure, one of the toughest things to beat him.”
Thiem did just enough to make it stick though, raising his arms in triumph moments after Nadal sailed a forehand wild to end a keenly contested final game and match. Besides Thiem’s aggressive barrage of ground strokes, two other factors may also have been at play.
Nadal was on a 17-match winning streak and fatigue could have set in, even if marginally. The second factor was that the runoff area around Campo Centrale is far less compared to the other tournaments in Europe. The smaller surface makes for an intimate spectator experience, but hurt Nadal, who was getting constantly pushed back by Thiem’s power and spin.
“It’s not easy, no, after playing almost every day for the last four weeks, no?” Nadal said. “It’s normal that one day you don’t feel perfect, and if you are unlucky on that day that you don’t feel that well, the opponent plays unbelievable.
“So, then, tomorrow I will be in Majorca fishing or playing golf or doing another thing,” said Nadal.
There is no doubt that Nadal will come refreshed and hungry to Paris. He will also be far more difficult to deal with in a five-set match. But Federer and Thiem, both men playing single handed off the backhand, seemed to have unlocked parts of the Nadal puzzle. In a week, Paris will be teeming with men who believe that the emperor is fragile, against power and sustained precision.
“One tournament he can win is Roland Garros. So we’ll see. Hopefully not this year,” said Nadal, just after Madrid. That hope will turn into a prayer as the emperor heads to Mallorca for a short break before resuming his quest for “La Decima” in Paris.
Updated Date: May 20, 2017 17:28 PM