Nadal and Thiem prepare for first hard-court battle

 - Simon Cambers

The Austrian may be the underdog but he has won three of their 10 previous matches.

Rafael Nadal fist pumping US Open 2018 round 3
©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Until now, the rivalry between Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem has been confined to clay, all 10 of their meetings coming on the red stuff, three of them at Roland Garros.

The most recent of those 10 came in the final in Paris in June, when Nadal won in straight sets to clinch his 11th Roland-Garros title, denying Thiem glory in his first grand slam final.

A leaf out of Nadal's book

But the sheer fact that Thiem has won three of those meetings makes their quarter-final clash at Flushing Meadows all the more intriguing.

“It’s a different kind of match than clay but it’s still a tennis match,” said the defending champion Nadal, who came through another tough test in round three, beating Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia 6-3, 6-3, 6-7, 6-4 on Sunday.

“It’s different but I know how he plays, he knows how I am playing. Going to be an interesting one, tough one, for both of us, the player who plays better will have the best chance.”

Imitation, they say, is the best form of flattery. Thiem has taken a leaf out of Nadal’s book when it comes to his return position, standing almost against the back fence to retrieve first serves.

"I was 11 back then"

It worked on Monday against Kevin Anderson, Thiem beating the South African for only the second time in eight meetings, his 7-5, 6-2, 7-6 victory putting him through to the quarter-finals of a grand slam for the first time outside of Paris.

“I served very well so it was a little bit easier to play the return games,” Thiem said. “I could change my return position, and this helped me a lot. The court made a big difference. It's a huge court. I could go very far back like I do on clay usually. So there were some good advantages for me."

The first time Thiem saw Nadal was on television at Roland Garros in 2005, when he beat Federer in the semi-finals. “I was 11 back then. Didn't really think that I would also play him one day, but it's very nice. It's going to be the first time on hard court which is a completely new experience.”

Dominic Thiem roaring US Open 2018©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
A golden chance to reach the last eight

On the three occasions Thiem has managed to beat Nadal in the past, in Madrid this year, Rome last year and in Buenos Aires in 2016, he has done so with an ultra-aggressive style.

He employed the same game-plan against Anderson, last year's runner-up, and the South African believes Thiem has an opportunity to cause a big upset. “I think he definitely has a realistic chance,” he told BBC Radio. “He’s beaten Rafa on clay a few times, which is Rafa’s favourite surface. I think if he plays as well as he did today, then he has a real chance.”

Last year, Thiem spurned a golden chance to reach the last eight when he could not close out his fourth-round match with Juan Martin Del Potro. This time, he made no mistake and Nadal knows he could be in for yet another tough battle, having already spent 11 hours, 5 minutes on court.

Rafael Nadal's face US Open 2018©Corinne Dubreuil
“He deserves to be where he is"

“He's a fantastic player,” Nadal said. “He's a very powerful player. He's a great guy. Very good relationship with him. Happy for him that he's in quarter-finals here. Last year he lost a very tough match against Del Potro.

“In some way he deserves to be where he is. It’s going to be a tough one. He's a very powerful player and he knows how to play these kind of matches. I need to play my best match of the tournament if I want to keep having chances to stay in the tournament.”

Thiem is the first Austrian to reach the quarter-finals since Thomas Muster lost to Andre Agassi in 1996. Muster had the kind of muscle required to beat the very best; Thiem will need the same thing if he is to oust Nadal.