Thiem prepares to face nemesis Nadal

 - Simon Cambers

Austrian hoping new hard-court prowess can see him to semi-finals.

Dominic Thiem Australian Open 2020C.Dubreuil / FFT

If Dominic Thiem ever has nightmares, you can bet that the figure of Rafael Nadal, wielding a racket on a clay-court, is in there somewhere.

First time in the last eight in Melbourne

The Spaniard has been the only thing standing between Thiem and Grand Slam glory over the past two years, the brick wall, immovable object blocking Thiem from the Roland-Garros crown in 2018 and 2019.

As the greatest clay-court player ever, Rafael Nadal is an incredibly difficult obstacle to overcome and the 33-year-old will be staring at him across the net yet again, this time in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open on Wednesday.

For Nadal it’s his 41st time in the last eight of a Grand Slam; for Thiem it’s his first time in the last eight in Melbourne.

I played my best match so far at this Australian Open, a very good feeling,” the Austrian said, after a comprehensive 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 win over Frenchman Gael Monfils, the No 10 seed.

Though clay is Thiem’s best surface, he might just have a better chance of beating on hard courts, certainly if their only previous meeting on the surface – a five-set classic won in a deciding tiebreak by Nadal at the US Open in 2018 - is any indication.

Dominic Thiem posing with his trophy in the night at Indian Wells 2019©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Good vibes on hard courts

That match went a long way to convincing Thiem that he can play on the surface and in 2019, he proved he could win the biggest titles on hard courts, too, beating Roger Federer to win Indian Wells.  

Thiem had hired the former Olympic champion, Nicolas Massu of Chile, shortly before that victory and Massu injected a confidence on hard courts that maybe even Thiem himself did not know he could possess.

At the end of 2019, he reached the final of the ATP Finals, losing out only to Stefanos Tsitsipas but again showing that hard courts were no longer something to be feared, instead something to enjoy.

At this year’s Australian Open, Thiem arrived with an Austrian legend, Thomas Muster in tow, the former world No 1 having agreed to join the "Team Thiem" and inspire him to a grand slam title. But the relationship lasted just two weeks as Muster left his new role.

Nothing bad happened there but we already said before we started the relationship that if it doesn't work out, we're going to stop it, and that was the case,” Thiem said. “I think it's always difficult, especially for me at the stage where I am, to find something perfect to add to my team. And I just had the feeling that it's not going to work out together, and that's why we finished. So that's all. I think it's way more relaxed than everybody thinks. I cannot explain what feeling it was, but it was just there. So I decided to take that decision and to continue like I worked last year, because it worked out very well.

And so Nadal will be there again, the world No 1 having edged out Nick Kyrgios in a pulsating four-set match on Monday night. But after watching the manner in which Thiem beat Monfils, Nadal said he will need to be at his very best.

It will be a very tough match,” Nadal said. “He's playing well. I saw him play today against Gael. He was playing a very high level of tennis. We know each other well. He's a player that I like him a lot, the way that he work, the way that he plays, and the way that he tries his best always. I know I have to be at my best to have chances. I think I am moving in the right direction. Every day I'm playing a little bit better.

A new tattoo for Thiem's mother ?

After Thiem beat Monfils, he was asked by Jim Courier about a new tradition that his mother, Karin, began last year, getting a tattoo each time Thiem wins a tournament.

Unfortunately I have to confirm it,” he said. “I really would like to deny it, but no. I had a pretty bad start to the season last year, some first-round losses and then after a long trip to Indian Wells from Rio, all really jet-lagged, she said if you win this title here, I’m going to make a tattoo. I ended up winning that one and so this tradition started.” Should he win here this Sunday, his mother will get a kangaroo tattoo, Thiem said.

If that is the price for winning a first grand slam title, then he’ll take the embarrassment.