RG 2019: Thiem building case to dethrone Nadal

 - Alex Sharp

In recent seasons Dominic Thiem has managed to defeat the King of Clay four times on his preferred surface!

During the Barcelona Open semi-finals Rafael Nadal hooked a trademark forehand as an approach shot, bouncing up shoulder high to Dominic Thiem’s left side.

In a flash, the Austrian wielded his sublime looping backhand to catapult past the reach of the 11-time champion. That passing shot had Nadal shaking his head in disbelief, which became the defining shot of another full-throttle victory for Thiem against the ‘King of Clay.’

Fourth clay court victory over Rafa

Thiem stepped in, dictating play with piercing strikes to pin Nadal behind the baseline and the 25-year-old canvassed the net with aplomb to press 6-4 6-4 onto the scoreboard. It was a significant win for the world No.5, denying Nadal a fourth-straight Barcelona title, but more importantly it was his fourth clay court victory over the Roland Garros champion in as many seasons.

I'm always super proud if I beat him because he's the best player ever on this surface,” said Thiem. “It's always very special to beat him here on clay.

That standout win was backed up in the final to lift his 13th career title. Thiem toppled the tricky Russian Daniil Medvedev 6-4 6-0, who has accumulated an ATP Tour-leading 25 match wins in 2019, by claiming 12 of the last 13 games during a dominant display.

However, Thiem is well aware he can’t rest on his laurels with his most-suited Grand Slam around the corner.

A title like this always gives you a lot of confidence, so I’ll be in a good mood going into Madrid. But the special thing about tennis is that I’ll start from zero in Madrid,” Thiem told reporters in Barcelona. “All the guys there are really strong, so I’ll need to be ready from the first point.

Nadal is still the man to beat on the hallowed ochre clay on Court Philippe Chatrier. This June the Spaniard will be chasing a miraculous 12th triumph at Roland Garros, but is his grip on the La Coupe des Mousquetaires slipping? Thiem is certainly building a case to become the heir to the clay court throne.

Rome, Barcelone, Madrid... Paris ?

Nadal still leads their intriguing head-to-head at 8-4, with a favourable 7-4 total on clay, but the 25-year-old was the only player to outmaneuver the Roland Garros champion on the red dirt in 2017 and 2018. 

In 2017, Nadal had navigated past Thiem’s on court aggression in the Barcelona and Madrid finals, before the Austrian gained revenge with a 6-4 6-3 scoreline in the Rome quarter-finals. That summer in Paris Nadal reasserted his authority, storming to a 6-3 6-4 6-0 victory in the Roland Garros semi-finals.

Back to 2018, the 17-time Grand Slam champion dropped just two games to dismiss Thiem in the Monte Carlo last eight. A few weeks later Thiem found the formula to clinch a 7-5 6-3 win over the Spaniard in Madrid. Once again on the major stage, Nadal swatted aside Thiem with a ruthless 6-4 6-3 6-2 showing in the Roland Garros final.

In three sets of play on clay, Thiem is able to nullify the threat of Nadal. On the other hand, in the Grand Slam arena and Thiem is yet to win a set facing Nadal in Paris.

The problem is the relentless power and precision required to demolish Nadal’s astonishing defense offers no margin of error for the opponent.

In Barcelona Thiem was connecting with bullet inside-out forehand winners, doing that for at least three hours after a fortnight of play at Roland Garros maps out the gravitas of the task facing the Austrian and the rest of the chasing pack seeking glory.

Novak Djokovic Rafael Nadal Roland-Garros 2015 French Open.©FFT.
Don't forget Djokovic

Obviously, a collection of other promising players and established elite will want to take their turn for a ticket into the trophy showdown, but world No.1 Novak Djokovic is deservedly the more threatening challenger.

Once again, he holds three Grand Slams and can secure a staggering second ‘Djokovic Slam’ just like his 2016 heroics at Roland Garros.

Thiem and Djokovic are the only players to have beaten Nadal four times on clay. They are the front runners to pounce if Nadal fails to reach his usual gladiatorial level on Court Philippe Chatrier.

Madrid and Rome still lie ahead on a busy road to Roland Garros, but Djokovic is out of sorts and Nadal is out of sorts.

Surely for Thiem a fourth successive season of chalking up a clay win over Nadal enhances his belief that he can assemble the artillery to hail a new ‘King of Clay.’