Nadal-Thiem : what we learned

 - Michael Beattie

Thiem made the perfect start, but Nadal was not to be denied in a late-night epic in New York...

Warm embrace at the net between Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem US Open 2018.©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

It was 2.04am in New York when Rafael Nadal hopped the net to embrace Dominic Thiem after their US Open quarter-final ended 0-6 6-4 7-5 6-7(4) 7-6(5). The near-five-hour contest saw the duo produce a combined 129 winners and cover nine kilometres on court, thrilling those diehard fans who stayed to the end with a contender for match of the year. It was, in the words of the Austrian, “the first really epic match I've played.”

What can we learn from this majestic marathon? Here’s five takeaways:

Domi’s perfect start

In the 10 previous meetings between Thiem and Nadal – all on clay, including three showdowns at Roland-Garros – the winner of the first set has gone on to win the match. All eyes were on how the change to the slicker, quicker concrete of New York would affect the dynamic of their rivalry, but surely even the most committed Thiem fan would not have predicted a 6-0 scoreline in the Austrian’s favour after just 24 minutes.

It was, after all, Thiem’s first Grand Slam quarter-final outside of Paris, and against Nadal, the three-time and defending champion who dealt with him so soundly in the Roland-Garros final earlier this year. But the No.9 seed emerged fired up and firing true, giving up a paltry seven points as he hammered 13 winners and dropped just two of 14 points on serve.

Thiem is just the fourth player to bagel Rafael Nadal at a Grand Slam after Andy Roddick at the 2004 US Open, Roger Federer in the 2006 Wimbledon final, and Tomas Berdych in the quarter-finals of the 2015 Australian Open.

Unlike Roddick, Federer, and Berdych, however, he would not go on to win the match.

Dominic Thiem fist pumping against Rafael Nadal US Open 2018©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
To step in, or step back…


Much was made of both Nadal and Thiem’s average return positions at the US Open prior to the match – so deep, noted one article, that they would find themselves enmeshed in the back fences of courts typically frequented by us mere mortals. So it was something of a surprise to see Thiem camping out on the baseline to receive Nadal’s serve – though not for those who have watched Roger Federer’s recent showdowns with the Spaniard.

Federer, like Thiem, is a right-handed player with a one-handed backhand, and has fallen prey to the lefty spin Nadal can load up against his weaker wing in the past. But in recent times a switch in tactics has seen the Swiss step into the court and meet the ball before it could rise too high for the stroke to be hit with power. This, too, was Thiem’s play, and proved mightily effective, even if it proved a stern test of his reaction times.

For Nadal’s part, he stuck to the tried and true, at times camped so deep behind the baseline that he disappeared from sight in the shadow of the backstop. Such distance gives him the time to take a full swing at the serve and return with interest before a quick dash to recover his ground.

Rafael Nadal's victory against Dominic Thiem US Open 2018©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
Court time catching up with Rafa?

“Thanks everybody for staying here tonight,” Nadal told the fans in Arthur Ashe Stadium who remained in their seats until the match’s 2.04am finish. “It’s an amazing feeling. I am playing a lot of hours this year in this beautiful stadium – that doesn’t bother me, just bothers my legs!”

The Spaniard delivered the line with a laugh, but there was truth in jest. At four hours and 49 minutes, Nadal’s victory over Thiem was his longest ever match at the US Open, bringing his total court time in 2018 to 15 hours, 53 minutes; contrast that with the 16 hours and 39 minutes he needed to win all seven matches en route to the 2017 title.

While Thiem looked capable of running all night, there were times in the fourth and fifth sets against the Austrian that the exertions of Nadal’s four-set tussles with Karen Khachanov and Nikoloz Basilashvili appeared to be taking their toll: not least as a string of missed volleys at critical moments, including one at 5-6, 30-30 in the fourth set that would have given him a match point, were uncharacteristically dumped into the net.

Nadal is nothing if not adaptive, and while his lungs may have been burning, his mind was clear. Net approaches, while risky, cut points short, and the world No.1 showcased his fine touch with a series of cute drop shots and angled approaches to break any rhythm Thiem might have been building in the final set.

The good news: Nadal now has two days to rest his weary limbs before Friday’s semi-final showdown with Juan Martin del Potro, a repeat of last year’s final-four clash. The bad news: their most recent meeting, in the Wimbledon quarter-finals, was a five-set, four-hour-47-minute rollercoaster.

Rafael Nadal sweating US Open 2018©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
The importance of forgetting

That missed volley late in the fourth set haunted Nadal, as Thiem ran away with the ensuing tiebreak to send the match into a decider. But the disappointment was quickly forgotten by the Spaniard, who had already confined that 6-0 opener to the depths of his memory. It’s always about the next point, not the last one.

“It was a very tough start,” Nadal admitted. “The only thing that I was thinking was, ‘finish this first set and try to forget about this start, and try to stay in the match in the second.’ I tried to win a couple of points, a couple of games, then wait to see what can happen. That’s what happened – I was there, I started to be on rhythm, and then the match became more equal.”

Indeed, both players did brilliantly to move on from the myriad lost battles in the course of their five-hour war: Nadal drawing a line under the opening set to take the second; Thiem shaking off the disappointment of losing the third from 5-3 up to collect an early break in the fourth; and Nadal again, not dwelling on a 0-40 lead that evaporated at 5-5 in the fifth.

“That broke my heart,” Nadal admitted. “But I just keep going. It is always the same story – point by point, game by game, set by set, and match by match. Keep going always – you can do a little bit more. That’s how I am still where I am today.”

Thiem’s time is coming

For a player who arrived at the US Open with just two hard-court wins against top-10 opposition, coming within two points of a victory over the defending champion and top seed speaks volumes about how far his game has come in 2018. Much as Nadal did 12 years ago by reaching his first Wimbledon final, Dominic Thiem proved that his clay-court instincts can be rewired to suit all surfaces. This was the first time he had gone beyond the fourth round at a major other than Roland-Garros, but it will not be the last.

“Being honest, I am very, very sorry for Dominic,” said Nadal, who revealed that during their embrace he told the 25-year-old: “You are good, keep going. He’s young, he has plenty of time to win big tournaments. He has everything – he’s a fighter and he has a great attitude, that’s the most important thing. Very well-educated guy. I’m sure he will have his chances in the future without a doubt.”

“This match will be stuck in my mind forever,” said a despondent Thiem. “It’s cruel sometimes, tennis. This match did not deserve to have a loser, but that's tennis and he made one more point than me.”

In fact, he didn’t: Nadal won 166 points to Thiem’s 171. But he won the last point, and that’s the one that truly counts.