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Are You On Team Thiem?

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Nadal’s still the King of Clay, but the heir to the throne might be Austrian.

Everything seemed to be going Rafa’s way.

This was Nadal’s third clay-court tournament of the year. At the first two, Monte Carlo and Barcalona, Nadal took home the title. Here in Madrid, Nadal was in the finals, making it 14 matches on clay in 2017 without a single loss for the undisputed King of Clay.

If one were to try to poke holes in Rafa’s wins in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, one might say that he’d gotten a bit lucky in his draws. It’s true; he did play only one player ranked inside the top 10 along the way to those two titles. But let’s be honest—that’s being pretty picky.

Regardless, lack of competition had not been the case here in Madrid. Playing in his home country Spain, Rafa had absolutely cruised to the finals of the Mutua Madrid Open despite having to play against competition that was much more formidable than that which he’d faced in the previous two tournaments.

In order to get to the finals in Madrid, Rafa had to get through some seriously tough customers in consecutive matches: Nick Kyrgios (no. 20 in the world rankings) in the round of sixteen, David Goffin (no. 10) in the quarterfinals, and Novak Djokovic (no. 2) in the semifinals. He did so without dropping a set.

In fact, Rafa hadn’t lost a single set since his first round match against the ever-talented, always underachieving Italian, Fabio Fognini. 

(Though ranked only no. 29 in the world, Fognini always seems to up his game when the spotlight is on. Not to mention that he’s given Rafa trouble in the past.)

Surely that lone set against Fabio was well out of his mind as Rafa returned serve up 5-4 in the first set of the finals in Madrid. Nadal pounced, putting his opponent in a 0-40 hole, which gave him three set points against a guy he’d already beaten in their one match earlier this year.

This is the point at which most players, when playing against Nadal on clay, begin to crumble like… um, like clay, I guess.

They eventually succumb to the inevitable: Nadal just doesn’t lose on his favorite surface: everyone else mere sheep to “El Toro” (“The Bull”).

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Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

Nadal has won 92% of the 413 matches he’s ever played on clay, which is by far—by far!—the best winning percentage by any player on any surface in the Open Era of men’s tennis, and his 51 clay-court titles are the most of all time.

But the thing is, against Dominic Thiem, nothing is ever straightforward.

Needing to save three consecutive set points, Dominic Thiem had to dig deep and find something special to stave off The Bull now that was now charging with a full head of steam. So Thiem did what Thiem does best: hit it harder.

Dominic Thiem hitting a tennis ball is sort if like Dustin Pedroia hitting a baseball or Jason Day hitting a golf ball: It’s exhausting just to watch them. Pay attention to Thiem’s forehands here:

Thiem goes flying in the air on the followthrough like it’s the last forehand he’s ever going to hit. But then he does it again. And again and again and again.

Thiem puts more effort into his shots than anybody since… well… since that guy on the other side of the net. You can tell how hard these guys are trying just by listening to them.

There are some tennis players who grunt out of habit. There are some who grunt because they’re tired. There are some who grunt to intimidate. There are some who grunt only when they need to run really far really fast.

Thiem and Nadal? They grunt on every shot because they just hit it so hard. I mean, just so freaking hard. 

The similarities between Thiem and Nadal don’t end at the extreme effort they put behind their shots—in many ways, they’re mirror images of one another.

  • Their most dangerous weapons are their driving forehand with spin rates approaching 4,000 RPM (which is up there in Jack Sock territory).

  • Their topspin backhands are often overlooked but may be the key to their success.

  • They tend to play way behind the baseline, relying on spin and power to turn defense into offense.

  • They’re even the same size: Thiem is 6‘1” and 185 lbs; Nadal is 6‘1” and 188 lbs. (I’m sure those extra three pounds went to Nadal’s biceps.)

One not insignificant difference between the two, though, is the serve. Thiem’s first serve is surprisingly powerful considering his relatively diminutive stature compared to the other big servers on the tour—think Milos Raonic, John Isner, Ivo Karlovic, or Kyrgios. 

Thiem often reaches 130 MPH on his first serves, making it a serious weapon in his arsenal, unlike Nadal, who relies much more on spin, placement, and consistency with his serves.

Four consecutive big first serves set up four easy points for Thiem.

And just like that, Nadal’s set points were history. Advantage, Thiem.

But Nadal is as good as anybody at getting the serve back in play and playing defense until he can take control of the point. If we’ve learned one thing about Rafael Nadal in his sixteen years as a professional tennis player, it’s that he doesn’t give anything away without a fight.

Thiem would have to work for that hold.

He started the point with a good-not-great first serve to Nadal’s backhand, which the lefty handled with ease. Standing miles behind the baseline, Nadal pounded the return deep to the middle of the court.

The excellent pace, height, and topspin Nadal put on his backhand return gave him time to recover back to the middle of the court—he’d have been in big trouble if he didn’t, since for the return of serve Nadal had decided to stand somewhere in Portugal.

Nadal’s powerful backhand sent Thiem scrambling backwards after his serve, a position from which most players are forced to play a more defensive shot. But not Thiem.

This is where the next big difference between these two shows up: Nadal tends to play conservative, defensive tennis, especially on clay. He puts every fiber of his being into returning as many balls as possible, with the goal being to wear his opponents down by putting the ball back in play.

Playing against a wall, everybody will make a mistake eventually. And Nadal on clay is pretty much just a wall. A loud, snarling wall who hits with a lot of topspin, but a wall nonetheless. 

Some would call that being a “pusher,” which, for the initiated is a pretty serious insult in the tennis world. As for the guy on the other side of the net, it’s hard to imagine anybody has ever accused Thiem of being a pusher. 

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Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes he seems to forget that those lines on the court are there to demarcate the boundaries of play, not to serve as targets to be aimed at on every shot. Sometimes it’s as if he thinks tennis is scored in miles per hour, not points.

Thiem’s style is wildly entertaining to watch, but the problem is that it plays right into Nadal’s hands. As we’ve seen from Roger Federer, who has played Rafa three times in 2017 and is responsible for three of Rafa’s five losses, the winning strategy against Nadal is to end points quickly: take balls early, move up, and attack the net.

Thiem, like Nadal, likes to play from well behind the baseline. And if you want to beat El Toro from all the way back there, you’re going to have to hit it even harder and with even more topspin than the guy who has won over $80 million in his career doing little other than hitting it harder and with more topspin than everybody else.

In other words, Thiem had to out-Rafa Rafa.

Falling backwards and completely off balance, Thiem demonstrated some impressive athleticism in hitting an absolute rocket of a forehand. Still, it went straight to Nadal’s forehand, and Nadal’s forehand on Sunday looked as good as it’s looked in a decade.

The Spaniard buggy-whipped the Austrian’s desperate thrashing deep into Thiem’s backhand corner, where Thiem had no choice but to lob the ball back in play. From there, Nadal took control of the point, using extreme angles to run Thiem side-to-side as Nadal snuck closer and closer to the baseline.

Thiem, barely able to stand at this point, sliced a backhand low and short. This is generally a very good defensive shot; it draws your opponent towards the net—perhaps against their will—and forces them to play a tricky in-between approach shot.

When you move closer to the net like that, you need more topspin if you want to keep the ball in play and still hit it hard as you would from back behind the baseline. And on a ball that’s that low to the ground, it’s difficult for most players to generate that spin they need.

Rafael Nadal is not most players—he’s never met a shot he couldn’t spin. Nadal zipped to his right, running around the ball in order to hit his favorite inside-out forehand. And then, POW!

Deuce. Kings stay kings.

But over the next few points Thiem just kept wailing at the ball and finally beat this service game to a pulp. After what felt like an hour, Thiem managed to secure the hold and level the first set at 5-5.

An uneventful hold by Nadal to make it 6-5 and then an equally uneventful hold by Thiem sent the first set into a tiebreak. Here, another difference between these two players came into the spotlight: net game. 

The first mini-break of the tiebreaker came with Thiem serving down 2-3 on a point that should easily have been his.

A big first serve drew a mediocre defensive lob by Nadal, setting up a routine overhead kill for Thiem. But the youngster was timid, perhaps weary of the legendary retrieval skills of his opponent, and took the ball out of the air instead of opting for the easier play in letting it bounce once before smashing it.

Thiem hit the overhead not quite as hard as he should have, sure, and that much was his fault. But there’s not much he could do about Nadal guessing correctly and quickly shuffling to his left before Thiem had even hit it.

Nadal’s smarts put him in perfect position and Thiem’s overhead went straight into his strikezone. Nadal obliterated a forehand right down the middle, sending it whizzing directly at Thiem’s knees.

Now, this is certainly a tricky volley to pull off, especially with the insane speed and spin that Nadal put on the ball, but Thiem should at least have been able to put it in play. Instead, he panicked, taking a difficult shot and making it even difficulter-er by trying to hit a perfect volley-drop.

The best Thiem could muster was a sad plop of a volley that didn’t come close to climbing over the net.

Surely this is the end of young Dominic Thiem in Madrid,” I thought to myself. And the commentators on TV agreed, mentioning that Thiem must be tired by now, more than an hour into a grueling first set.

Then they pointed out that Thiem’s match against Pablo Cuevas the night before didn’t finish until well after midnight and that Thiem had played more tournaments so far this year than anybody else in the top 10 and that he did the same thing last year, and Rafa has a habit of tiring people out and so I started to think about changing the channel.

But I couldn’t pull myself away. Thiem just kept on swinging. 

Any ball that he could reach, he walloped. He went for every line and he went for every winner, which is probably why Thiem had almost twice as many unforced errors as Nadal in the first set.

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Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

You know how when you play fetch with a dog they run as if they’ve been waiting their entire lives for this very moment? I’m gonna go get that ball when you throw it and you’re gonna be so impressed with how fast I go and WOW JUST LOOK AT ME I’M THE FASTEST WOW FETCH IS THE GREATEST THING EVER CAN YOU BELIEVE HOW AMAZING THIS IS WOW LOOK A BALL

But then within like 10 minutes they’ve run out of steam and instead of bringing the ball back they kind of just go get it and then sit there? Right, so, Thiem is like a dog for that first part (the run-around-like-a-lunatic part) but then he just never gets to that second part (the sit-there-panting-with-your-tongue-sticking-out-too-tired-to-bring-the-ball-back part).

It’s as if he can’t resist the temptation to aim right at the line and blast a forehand cross-court from 10 feet behind the baseline, or try an impossibly huge up-the-line backhand on the run.

He tries the kind of stuff that would drive any coach up the wall. If you don’t know Thiem’s backstory, you might be fooled into thinking his coach is always trying to rein in Thiem’s naturally hyper-aggressive style.

What are you thinking?” his coach must be thinking to himself. “Just play it safe, get the ball back in play, give yourself more margin for error, and wait for an easy ball to unleash your power.”

That’s very not true. So very not true that I want to laugh.

During last year’s Wimbledon, when Thiem reached a grand slam semifinal for the first time in his young career, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about Thiem and his coach, Gunter Bresnik.

As an 11-year-old, Thiem rose to no. 2 in his native Austria’s junior rankings. But Bresnik, former coach of Patrick McEnroe and Boris Becker, wasn’t satisfied—he saw bigger, better things in little Dominic’s future.

Bresnik made a drastic decision: He told Thiem to dump his two-handed backhand and start hitting it one-handed.

The change was so dramatic and so sudden that it halted Thiem’s junior success in its tracks. He didn’t win a single match for over a year. 

Can you imagine the effect that must have had on a kid’s confidence? All of a sudden, the second best player in the country can’t win a tennis match! How or why Thiem and his parents trusted Bresnik through this, I’ll never know.

But according to Bresnik, Thiem’s problem was about more than just his backhand. The problem wasn’t something so superficial as mere technique: It was his entire approach to tennis that was the problem.

“His attitude in general, his personality, is very defensive,” Bresnik said. “I told his father, ‘If you go to a tournament and the people stop by and say who is this idiot who hits every ball as hard as possible?’ then we succeeded. To make him hit the ball in the court is just a question of time. We needed to break down this barrier that he tries to put the ball in play instead of hitting the ball right.”

So you’re telling me that the most aggressive tennis player I’ve ever seen is, by nature, defensive? That’s weird, man. That’s really weird.

That means all of this is forced. That means every blasted forehand, every ridiculous backhand, every 130 MPH serve, every single shot is a conscious decision.

That means that every ball that sails eight feet long, adding yet another tally mark to his unforced error count, wasn’t a mental breakdown; it was a mental victory. It wasn’t that he failed to control himself; he successfully made himself go for it.

Thiem has spent all these years of training himself in order to repress his defensive instincts, which are—interestingly enough—the same instincts that have driven one Rafael Nadal Parera of Manacor, Mallorca to reach historically high levels of dominance in tennis. 

It turns out that, deep down, Thiem and Nadal are fighting the same demons. In his autobiography entitled Rafa, which he co-authored in 2011 with John Carlin, Nadal talked about how his strongest motivation, unlike that of Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan, is not a great desire to win but a terrible fear of losing.

At 11 years old, Nadal—just like Thiem—had an experience that would forever change the course of his tennis career. 

During the summer, he took a month-long break from playing competitively. He remembers his first tournament after that break like it was yesterday.

I’d had a really fun August with my friends, fishing, swimming in the sea, playing football on the beach. But I hadn’t trained much, and then, suddenly, I was playing in a tournament in Palma… and I lost. I still remember the score: 6–3, 6–3, against a guy I should have beaten. On the way back home in the car I was deathly silent. My father, who’d never seen me so gloomy, tried to cheer me up… “Look. You’ve had a fantastic summer with your friends. Be happy with that. You can’t have everything. You can’t be a slave to tennis.” He thought he was presenting me with a convincing argument, but I burst out crying, which shocked him still more because I never cried. Not then. He insisted. “Come on, you’ve had a terrific summer. Why’s that not enough?” “Yes, Dad,” I replied, “but all the fun I had then can’t make up for the pain I’m feeling right now. I never want to feel this way again.”

Nadal’s struggles in recent years have been a result of a confluence of factors working against him, but they all add up to his play becoming too defensive.

Injuries prevent me from practicing as much as I want to and my groundstrokes feel a bit shaky? Better just get the ball in play. Aging legs means I don’t have the speed I used to? Better move farther behind the baseline so I can get to more shots.

This quickly turns into a vicious cycle for Nadal. Standing farther back and hitting less aggressively makes it easier for his opponent to attack. If his opponent is attacking more, Nadal has to stand farther back and he can’t hit as aggressively, which makes it easier for his opponent to attack, etc.

Injuries may have put him in this vicious cycle, but it was a lack of confidence that kept him there.

In 2015 and 2016, Nadal was in what Channing Frye might classify as The Matrix: a slump that quickly snowballed into a full-blown psychological crisis. Things that normally came so easily to Nadal just weren’t working like they used to, and he began questioning everything.

His results were terrible and his confidence was even worse, winning only one tournament over two years and routinely losing to players we’d never have even considered worthy of sharing the court with perhaps the second best tennis player of all time

It wasn’t until Nadal’s team underwent a very serious coaching shake-up that Rafa snapped out of The Matrix.

(Or, at the very least, it seemed like a very serious shake-up. None of us on the outside will ever know the exact details of the inner machinations of the Nadal camp.)

We all know that Toni Nadal has been Rafa’s coach since he first picked up a racquet. Others have come and gone and have had varying degrees of influence over the strategic decision-making aspect of Nadal’s coaching, but Uncle Toni has always had final say.

Carlos Moya has, at various points over the past dozen years, been one of those influencers. Also from the island of Mallorca, the former Spanish Davis Cup captain was once a very strong player in his own right: he won the 1998 French Open and in 1999 reached no. 1 in the world rankings.

Moya had been a trusted confidant in the Nadal camp ever since the two met when Rafa was barely a teenager.

But in January of 2016 Moya stepped away from team Nadal and began coaching Milos Raonic.

Moya brought Raonic to no. 3 in the world rankings, a new career high and eleven spots higher than his ranking when Moya started coaching him. Of course, this happened to coincide (by chance?) with Rafa’s worst season in over a decade and his subsequent plummet from the world rankings.

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The big shake-up that Rafa needed turned out to be Moya’s return to Team Nadal in January of this year. And boy did he ever shake things up.

Suddenly rumors abound that it was no longer Uncle Toni who was running Rafa’s practices. What were once legendarily long and intense practices sessions, even during the tournament, suddenly became shorter and more relaxed

What was once an extremely comfortable yet predictable serve pattern (drag righties out wide to their backhand on the ad-side) suddenly became more aggressive and daring (maybe… go up the middle once in a while?).

Moya was changing things up on the most change-averse guy you’ve ever seen. What was once an extremely stable Nadal family nucleus suddenly saw Toni announce he’d be stepping away in 2018.

Whatever Moya did, it worked. After falling to Raonic in Brisbane (who, by the way, has been Rafa, Stan Wawrinka, and Roger Federer in the world rankings since he and Moya split), Nadal reached the finals of the Australian Open, which was his best result in a grand slam in almost three years.

Nadal continued to play well as he adjusted to Moya’s instruction. Besides a fluke loss to Sam Querrey in Abu Dhabi, the only guy who could beat Nadal at the next four tournaments of the year has been Federer.

But Federer decided to skip the clay court season entirely, leaving no one who could stop this raging bull. Just don’t tell that to Dominic Thiem.

Serving up 5-3 in the tiebreaker, this was Nadal’s chance to give himself another handful of set points and put Thiem away. A good serve and then a good first ball pushed Thiem back and then ever father back.

Nadal moved in and attacked a weak short ball with a blistering forehand, and a scrambling Thiem did well to even get his racquet on the ball, hitting a high defensive lob. It was an exact replay of the point at 2-3 except now the roles had been reversed: Nadal was the one with the easy overhead.

And just like Thiem a few minutes earlier, Nadal couldn’t quite put it away.

A mediocre overhead allowed Thiem to put a great swing on a backhand and send it back hard and deep. All of a sudden it was Nadal who was backpedaling, off balance, and playing timid tennis—the kind of tennis that Moya had been trying to eradicate all year.

A couple short, wimpy shots from the 2016-version of Nadal allowed Thiem to take total control of the point: he moved in, ran around a couple forehands, and reminded Nadal how to play attacking tennis.

Point, Thiem. Mini-break-back.

This has been a confusing year in men’s tennis. It was supposed to be the year when Andy Murray cemented his place as one of the sport’s all-time greats, and when Djokovic continued his run at Federer’s “best ever” crown. Meanwhile Federer and Nadal were supposed to continue to sink into obscurity as age slowly sapped them of their talent and health.

Just ask John McEnroe. In November 2016 he was on air at New York radio station and gave some interesting thoughts on the future of men’s tennis.

“There’s a void that’s about to occur because of what’s happened with (Roger) Federer and (Rafael) Nadal. I mean, they’re at the end, right? You can’t imagine them going on more than a year or two.”

In other words, the Big Four was supposed to become the Big Two.

That hasn’t happened. So far in 2017, Federer and Nadal have won 90% of their matches, racking up six titles and three runner-ups in the process. Murray and Djokovic? A measly two titles, one runner-up, and a win rate of only 74%.

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Despite Murray and Djokovic hanging on to the top two spots in the ATP Rankings, it’s hard to argue that anybody in the world is playing better than Federer and Nadal.

It feels like we’ve seen this movie before. Rafa’s probably going to win the French Open for a record tenth time, Fed’s probably going to win Wimbledon for a record eighth time, and then it’s going to be a toss-up at the US Open.

It all feels so predictable that it’s tempting to overlook the present and skip straight to the future.

It’s tempting to take a totally unique player like Dominic Thiem and shove him into a mold in the shape of one particular Spaniard whose style of play we’re immediately reminded of when we watch Thiem play. And it’s tempting to do the same with Nick Kyrgios for Federer (he’s got that creativity and those hands!) or Alexander Zvarev for Djokovic (he’s got that athleticism and that all-around game!).

But tennis is becoming a sport for the old guys, so even though Thiem and his cohort have burst onto the scene at relatively young ages, don’t forget there’s another entire generation before them. Milos Raonic, David Goffin, Jack Sock, and Grigor Dimitrov are probably first in line to inherit the sport from the Big Four.

You know what? Given the way Federer and Nadal have played lately, it’s probably still too early to count out a run of dominance for the “Lost Boys,” namely, Kei Nishikori, Marin Cilic, Juan Martín del Potro, and Stan Wawrinka.

Thiem, like Zvarev and Kyrgios, has a long road ahead of him. Barring some drastic change in the way the tennis is played, it’s probably going to be a good while before these ”Next Generation” guys are dominating the tour. We’re going to have to be patient.

In the meantime, let’s enjoy the present. And if you ask me, I’d say the present features some pretty awesome tennis. Especially if the old guys keep playing like this and the Big Four retains all four of its members.

The tieback progressed to 6-6, with each player holding serve and playing as well as they could possibly play: Thiem unloading on every ball he could reach, Nadal playing defense until he saw an opening to attack.

Thiem went on to lose the first set tiebreaker 7-9 and then quickly fell down a break in the second set. The culprit, mostly, was his inability to close out points. Here’s a pretty good example of the biggest weakness in Thiem’s game:

This point is over. Done. See ya. Auf Wiedersehen. All Thiem has to do is move in on any one of those short, spinny, lunging forehands that Nadal could barely get over the net and he’d have an easy volley winner.

I know he knows he has the upper hand because then he tries to hit the next shot even harder than he normally hits it. All he has to do is charge the net and take one of those easy shots out of the air.

Instead, he stands there at the baseline, waiting. Overcompensating for his bad decision making, Thiem smashes the thing well out, giving Nadal the break and the lead in the set.

By now, though, I’m sure you’ve learned not to count Thiem out, and, would ya look at that, he made Nadal sweat a little bit in the second set. 

(Side note: Have you ever seen anybody sweat more than Nadal? When he’s doing his scripted pre-serve routine—pick the wedgie, wipe the nose, thread the hair behind one ear, wipe the nose again, thread the hair behind the other ear, all while bouncing the ball and standing up on the toe of his back foot—sweat is always pouring down his nose like somebody forgot to turn off the faucet. It’s a sight to behold.)

Down 4-5, Thiem fought his way and earned a few break points and a chance to level the score in the set. But Nadal proved that Thiem still has a lot to learn.

I have no evidence to support this claim, but I would imagine that one of the things Moya is trying to get through Nadal’s head is that he should take greater advantage of his most underrated skills: Nadal is a really, really good volleyer.

Blessed with shockingly quick reaction time, I’d argue that he’s one of the best in all of tennis. Rafa’s problem has never been so much that he’s not skilled at the net, it’s that charging the net runs completely counter to Nadal’s defense-first mentality. He just never does it.

Thanks to Moya’s instruction, it looks like this is changing. After a few good serves and a timely drop shot erased Thiem’s break points, Nadal was now serving for the match. 

Nadal pushes Thiem back in the court with his typically powerful groundstrokes—no surprise there, that’s what these players had been doing to one another all match. But watch Rafa take advantage by working his way towards the net and then stepping on Thiem’s throat so that he doesn’t have a chance to clobber his way back into the point:

Perhaps the last step of Thiem’s transformation from super-fast defense-first little kid to super-aggressive offense-first pro is essentially the same as the last step in Nadal’s transformation from the psychologically-defeated Nadal of 2015–16 to the self-assured Nadal of 2017: learn to end points through some means other than brute force.

The brute force method, of course, has gotten Thiem pretty far. At this point, he’s so adept at blindly wailing at the ball that his default state is ‘reckless abandon,’ and yet he’s still the youngest player inside the top 10 in the world rankings.

Thiem’s coach has found a pretty ingenius solution to appease Thiem’s naturally defensive approach: make him most comfortable when playing aggressively.

Thiem finds safety in risk, stability in volatility, comfort in desperation. The best defense is a good offense, and Thiem’s version of playing defense is just to swing harder.

What’s yet to be seen is whether Thiem can take the next step, which, if he follows the Nadal model (the Nadodel?), is to develop a net game. It might take him a while to learn how to come to the net and what to do when he gets there, but I have faith. 

Hopefully he doesn’t take too long, though—I can’t imagine that he’ll have the luxury of waiting till he’s won 14 grand slam titles to figure it out.

All right, time to pull back the curtain a little bit.

That was supposed to be the end of the article right there. I thought I’d wrapped things up so nicely: Thiem has world-class firepower, his reliance on nothing but power is holding him back from reaching the Nadal’s level, and he’s going to need to take a page out of Nadal’s book (i.e., learn to end points quicker by coming to the net) to make that leap.

I was wrong. I was wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong.

Preoccupied with an upcoming trip (and, you know, not being a professional sportswriter), I dilly-dallied a bit in getting this article published. So imagine my surprised when I woke up early this morning to give the thing one last read-through and found that Thiem and Nadal had just played a rematch in Rome.

And Thiem won. By a lot.

Uh oh,” I thought to myself. “What if he didn’t volley or anything and just beat the crap out of the ball? Boy would I look stupid.”

Well, I just finished watching the highlights, and I certainly do look stupid. Thiem just flat out overpowered Nadal.

It’s tempting to think the defeat was at least partially a result of exhaustion—this was Nadal’s eighth match in the last ten days, so fatigue had to be setting in for the soon-to-be 31-year old. This might explain his unusually frequent use of the drop shot in this match despite not having a lot of success with it:

But Thiem should have been just as tired as Nadal, if not more so, since he was also playing his eighth match in ten days. Plus, Thiem had had a much more challenging road so far in Rome. 

It took him more than three and a half hours to get through Pablo Cuevas and Sam Querrey in his first two matches, whereas Rafa had been on the court for under two hours, having benefitted from a Nicolas Almagro injury withdrawal.

And besides, Nadal had played extremely well in consecutive weeks in Monte Carlo and Barcelona less than a month ago, winning all 10 matches in a 12-day stretch, so clearly he’s just as fit as he’s ever been.

It’s plausible that Rafa wanted to conserve energy for Roland Garros and maybe didn’t want to give maximum effort, but come on. This is Rafael Nadal we’re talking about. I don’t think he’s ever taken his foot off the pedal for one point in friendly game of ping-pong, let alone the in the quarterfinals of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia.

“I never take Monte-Carlo, Barcelona or Rome like preparation,” said Nadal. “Every tournament is so emotional for me. Every tournament is so important. Every tournament by itself is important enough to not consider it like preparation for the other.

No no, this was Thiem’s win, fair and square. This was a thrashing, plain and simple. Other than maybe the peak version of Stan Wawrinka (which I’m pretty sure only shows up in grand slams against Djokovic), nobody can beat Thiem when he’s playing this well:

Should he have moved in at some point? Probably. But who cares when you can hit your groundstrokes with that much pace, depth, and accuracy? I mean, Nadal had absolutely no chance on that point; every ball Thiem hit was too good.

Thiem broke Nadal twice in the first set, including the very first game of the match. Nadal had trouble taking control of the points from the get-go. Thiem’s power was just too much to handle and Nadal was totally unable to push him off the baseline.

Despite having already beaten Thiem twice this year and in four of their last five meetings, I think the early break spooked Rafa. The aggressive 2017 version of Nadal that Moya had so diligently worked to cultivate over the past few months was scared back into its shell by the booming roar of Dominic The Lion. 

(Does Thiem have a nickname? Because he kind of looks like a lion, so I feel like his nickname should have something to do with a lion, but I’m really struggling to work the word “lion” into “Dominic” or “Thiem,” so come on guys, give me something here. Maybe King Dominic?)

Check out what happened on match point. Just watch how many of Rafa’s groundstrokes failed to get deeper than the service line:

That’s just not going to cut it. Even here, where Thiem gave him plenty of openings, Nadal just couldn’t take over the rallies, and he admitted as much in his post-game interview.

“Today I was not able to push him back. He had the control of the points.”

Instead of whipping his forehands aggressively towards the baseline or pounding his backhands crosscourt, Nadal played the type of the conservative tennis that rendered him unable to compete with the top players in the world in 2015–16.

“It’s not easy, no, after playing almost every day for the last four weeks, no?” Nadal said. “It’s normal that one day you don’t feel perfect, and if you are unlucky on that day that you don’t feel that well, the opponent plays unbelievable. So, then, tomorrow I will be in Majorca fishing or playing golf or doing another thing.”

Luckily for Nadal, now he’ll have over a week off to rest before the French Open. I think Nadal will be the betting favorite at Roland Garrosm but Djokovic will be right there with him at the top of the list. Novak has looked better in Rome than he had in the previous clay court tournaments this year, so he should not be overlooked.

But Thiem is now 17-3 on clay this year with two runner-ups (both to Nadal) plus a title in Rio de Janeiro. Meanwhile, yet another clay court title is still within his sights here in Rome: he’ll face winner of Djokovic and Del Potro in the semifinals, and, if he advances, the winner of John Isner and the younger Zvarev in the finals.

The Lion is clearly in his element on clay, and right now he’s on the prowl in Rome. But when he arrives in Paris, you have to imagine that the King of Clay will on the lookout for the King of the Jungle.

Edited by Jazmyn Brown, Emily Greitzer.

As of May 2017, Rafael Nadal had won three different clay court tournaments at least nine times. Which of the following has he won only five times?
Created 5/20/17
  1. Roland Garros
  2. Barcelona
  3. Monte Carlo
  4. Madrid

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