Zverev reaches first major quarter-final
Rafa watches on as Dominic Thiem issues a warning against Kei Nishikori on Chatrier.
On his 32nd birthday, Rafael Nadal was in a TV booth high up on Court Philippe-Chatrier, earning congratulations all round and a standing ovation from the crowd.
The great man, however, would doubtless have been more interested in what was happening down below on court as he kept a beady eye on the man who really may well be the only one equipped to beat him in his kingdom.
Yes, Dominic Thiem really did look that good.
Okay, so the Austrian did have moments of fragility, an absent-minded game here and a couple of missed sitters there, but Nadal may have recognised once again in the No.7 seed’s 6-2 6-0 5-7 6-4 victory over Kei Nishikori the real danger to his throne, even if Thiem still has to get past Alexander Zverev in the last eight.
“I think that's the match-up most of the fans in Germany and Austria were hoping for when they saw the draw,” said Thiem, as he contemplated a match against the No.2 seed who beat him in the recent Madrid final.
“It’s going to be great. He's an amazing player. I mean, probably now the third-best after Rafa and Roger (Federer). So it's going to be an amazing challenge for me.”
One of these two will pose the biggest threat to birthday boy Nadal.
Already, Thiem has beaten the Spaniard three times on clay and Nadal would have seen again in his tormentor’s destruction of Nishikori over the first two sets a man at the top of his game and with the weapons to keep anyone on the back foot.
In a spell of nine straight winning games from the middle of the first set, Nishikori was left looking increasingly hangdog as he saw Thiem giving a pretty good impression of a complete player.
The 24-year-old was firing rapier-like winners from both flanks, judiciously chucked in the odd drop shot - even off serves - that feathered perfectly over the net and used a cunning low backhand slice to set up the big plays.
When he hit a magisterial forehand cross-court winner at full stretch, Nishikori looked ready to call it a day. “He was hitting very deep. And I kind of lost what I have to do on the court,” shrugged the Japanese.
He didn’t give up, of course. Nishikori battled the odds, coming up with some delightful winners himself, hanging in there in the third set until the most peculiar game with Thiem serving at 5-6.
The Austrian blitzed down another service winner to go 30-0 up but in doing so, looked concerned when Nishikori, who just about got his racquet to the ball, ended up shaking his right wrist in pain. Having suffered a torn tendon in the same wrist that sidelined him for five months, there was a concerned murmur around Chatrier - and Thiem’s killer instinct was suddenly and bizarrely deadened.
Quite losing concentration, Thiem, who had hitherto not even faced a break point, then dropped the next four points, including a double fault and two careless overhit forehands.
“Then it was a 50-50 game, and in the end, it was very, very close,” reckoned a slightly relieved Thiem, who even ballooned long the simplest of forehand put-aways on his first match point.
Actually, it wasn’t that close, though. Thiem, for the large part, still seemed in control, flying through the air as he cracked some supreme forehands. “Probably the backhand looks nicer but I think my forehand is the shot I'm winning the matches with, definitely,” he said.
“I think for me, it's time to move on to make a great step, because I'm turning 25. I'm not that young anymore.”
He looked and sounded like a man whose moment may have come.