The scoreline reads like a lop-sided mismatch, but the promise gifted Austrian Dominic Thiem displayed against the might of Rafael Nadal pointed to bigger things to come.
Scratch the surface and the 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 result on Philippe Chatrier Court in the eight-time champion’s favour becomes somewhat peripheral.
Nadal was clearly resilient when it mattered most in the second-round encounter; his 19 unforced errors fewer than half his opponent’s, but the 27 winners flying off the strings of the fast-rising Thiem and the all-court flair he showed had the Spaniard anointing him as among the best hopes of succeeding the current crop of Grand Slam-winning champions.
“As far as his game is concerned, I think that our generation is now on the way out, like Murray, Djokovic, Ferrer, and Berdych and others, and Tsonga, as well, we have been here for a long while. A generation is walking away and others will replace us. It will not come overnight, but it will come,” Nadal said.
“I think that this player has a huge potential and could be one of the ones who's going to replace us. His tennis style is really good. What he could work on is his footwork and how he moves on the court. That's all. But apart from that, I think his speed is really good, and also the way he changes directions, he serves well. I think he has a bright future ahead of him.”
The young Austrian recorded the first top 10 win of his short career against Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka only weeks ago in Madrid. At 20 years and eight months, he became the youngest player to defeat a top-three opponent since Juan Martin del Potro stunned then-No.1 Roger Federer to win the 2009 US Open.
Playing Nadal on the Grand Slam stage the Spaniard has come to own, though, is an altogether tougher ask.
“He lost one match here in 10 years or something, so I knew that it's gonna be the biggest challenge in my tennis career,” Thiem said. “It is really important to play against these guys a lot, against these top guys, because it's more important than every practice, I think. I hope I can take a lot with me from this match.”
If Thiem, playing his first Roland Garros, was expected to be the more nervous of the two, it didn’t show.
He conjured a break point on Nadal’s opening service game and showed the full array of shots in his artillery to wheel the Spaniard to all corners, closing for a backhand half-volley winner on serve.
Where the shot production was not lacking, consistency was. Nadal broke for 2-0 and went on to snare the set on a double fault from the Austrian after 42 minutes.
Two sets down and Thiem made an early push in the third. Roared on by the packed Philippe Chatrier Court crowd he broke for 2-1 and pulled off another backhand half-volley winner for 3-1.
But amid the moments of brilliance, his serve became his Achilles heel, and he was unable to consolidate the advantage when the opportunity arose.
“He doesn't give you anything. I was serving 213[km/h], 215, even on the line, and he brings the returns back. I think he made two mistakes on second serve, so you have to play every rally,” Thiem said.
A double fault surrendered a second successive break and the No.1 seed closed it out after two hours and five minutes for a third-round assignment against Leonardo Mayer.
Thiem is knocking but Nadal’s lease on Philippe Chatrier Court is far from up.