The case for: Dominic Thiem

 - Alex Sharp

The 2016 and 2017 Roland Garros semi-finalist is primed to progress further in Paris.

Dominic Thiem in action at Roland-Garros 2017, where he reached the semi-final.© Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Fans, players and media unite in backing Rafael Nadal to rule once again at Roland Garros and lift a mind-boggling 11th Coupe des Mousquetaires.

The world No.1 once again enjoyed an exemplary build-up to Paris, clinching titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, reaching the quarters in Madrid - a run that helped him set a record of 50 consecutive sets won on clay - and becoming champion in Rome.


Dominic Thiem created the only blemish in Nadal’s otherwise pristine claycourt record by upsetting the Spaniard in the last eight in Madrid.

Rewind to the same stage of the Rome quarter-finals 2017, where Thiem produced lights out tennis to topple the Spaniard in straight sets.

Twelve months later it was another absorbing display of brave shot-making by the Austrian to burst through the Nadal armory in a 7-5 6-3 triumph.

“It’s amazing. He's in a really great form. He won 21 matches on clay and 50 sets. So I had to play an extraordinary match, and that's what I did,” said Thiem in Madrid.

“I think a very important thing also was today that I went in with the attitude that I can beat him. Obviously in Monte-Carlo, he killed me Love and 2. It was very important I went in with a positive attitude, with an attitude to win. I should go in every match against him like this, into the majors against him, really with the belief to win.”

Many a time we have witnessed players looking dejected, accepting defeat after the first few exchanges of a clay clash with Rafa. Yet Thiem certainly doesn’t fall into that bracket.

The belief is back

The world No.8 stated after ousting Nadal: “Of course, it gave me a huge confidence boost.”

Beforehand, the 6-0 6-2 demolition by Nadal in Monte Carlo was “tough to digest”, as was a surprise loss to Next Gen prodigy Stefanos Tsitsipas in Barcelona.

“There was a little bit lack of confidence in Monte-Carlo and Barcelona but I think the level of my game increased especially in Madrid,” declared Thiem, who fell 6-4 6-4 to Alexander Zverev in the final in the Spanish capital.

“In Madrid I got my full self-confidence back. I have the feeling that on clay, a lot of matches are in my own hands. Rafa is the player I have to be really at my best, and he cannot have his best day, to beat him, but against almost everybody else, I have it in my own hands. That's a good thing to know, for sure.”

A fresh perspective

The Austrian is far from intimated by Nadal and is oozing with confidence. A factor behind his surge in form could be the impact of Galo Blanco.

The Spaniard, a 1997 quarter-finalist at the French Open, joined Thiem’s mainstay coach Gunter Bresnik at the beginning of 2018 and spent the off-season with the 24-year-old in Tenerife. Blanco’s clay-court prowess helped guide Thiem to the Buenos Aires title in February.

“He’s added some really good stuff to my game. He was a really good player himself. That's why he can help me with a lot of things,” Thiem revealed. “He knows how it feels out there, how it feels in certain situations. It's a very good thing to have him.”

Blanco, having previously worked with the likes of Milos Raonic, Elias Ymer and Karen Khachanov, is relishing the task to mould such an explosive talent yet dedicated pupil.

“It’s another step, another player, different to what I’ve worked with up to now, but truth be told it’s easy to work with him because he’s a hard worker,” Blanco said. “He’s got no problems spending the necessary time on the court in order to improve and he’s open to everything.”

Clay adoration

Thiem is no stranger to success sliding across the confines of a court in Paris, storming into successive semi-finals in 2016 and 2017.

“I really love clay. I grew up on it. But the word 'clay-court specialist' it began a little bit last year when I had these amazing results in Madrid, Rome and Roland Garros,” said Thiem, who has seven trophies on clay among his career nine-title haul. “Before that, 2015, 2016, I think I was not known as a clay-court specialist.”

There is no question his quarter of the draw including possible match-ups with Tsitsipas, Kei Nishikori and No.2 seed Sascha Zverev will present an almighty test of his title credentials.

Clay specialist or not, Thiem is truly a contender to reign at Roland Garros, and Rafa will know that.