“One tournament he can win is Roland Garros. So we’ll see. Hopefully not this year,” Rafael Nadal recently said of today’s opponent, Dominic Thiem, with a wink. It now feels like he willed that version of Thiem—the genuine French Open threat, the hardest-hitting guy on clay—into existence.
Just a week after falling to Rafa in the finals at Madrid, the 23-year-old proved himself fit for the unpleasant task that is beating Rafa on dirt in 2017. (He’d done it last year at Buenos Aires, but that Rafa wasn’t nearly as healthy as this one, who is delivering a slightly more convincing, though still distant impression of his young robust self.) Today in their Italian Open quarterfinal, the 23-year-old revealed that when he’s marshaling his raw power—letting it fly, but hitting his spots—he can hit anyone off the court, even someone with Nadal’s frenetic defensive energy. A consistent Dominic Thiem is a fearsome thing. It was enough to halt the king’s three-title, 17-match run and secure a 6-4, 6-3 victory.
One point that can’t be overstated: Nadal elevates his opponents to their purest offensive peak. Beating Nadal on clay means administering a dose that would be sufficient to kill a normal opponent... and then maybe two more equally aggressive shots to earn the point, because he’s somehow chipped everything back into play. Eventually, if you’re good enough for long enough, you find a way to take him down.
Thiem even found a way to win those points that typically favor Nadal. When playing a go-for-broke slugger, the Spaniard can just keep the ball deep and slathered in spin, and let the fatigue of Thiem’s monstrous strokes accumulate, until he spits up the wild mishit or the overcooked down-the-line attempt. But today in those very same situations, Thiem just kept hitting the ball clean, moving Rafa around but not going for too much too early in the rally, until he finally found a ripe opportunity to hit through the court. Resisting his worst tendencies, he didn’t let himself get pushed a mile behind the baseline. Better court positioning opens the door for him to step in and rip this backhand, and it’s beautiful. Not often do you get to watch Nadal watch a ball hiss past him, just a few feet away.
Given all the setup that Thiem’s heavy strokes require, he has to be moving well to take a good crack at the ball. As a result, he doesn’t necessarily produce his best work on the run, but he was clicking even there today, as seen most clearly in this winner from well out of position. On the one hand, maybe Nadal should have done a little more to that ball than lightly slicing it far from the corner. But on the other hand, you’ve got to appreciate the footwork from Thiem to scramble back, set his feet for a fleeting moment, and slap the passing shot despite all his weight falling backwards.
Historically, one of the most frustrating aspects of watching Thiem has been seeing him take risks at pointless times, and go for too little when he has a legitimate opportunity to finish. But his shot selection today suggested some real maturity on that front, even under the pressure of match point.
Time now to put previous Thiem skepticism to rest, without getting overeager—no one’s ready to unseat Nadal as the crushing French Open favorite. But the possibility of Dominic Thiem winning Grand Slams, especially the French, is becoming harder and harder to deny. As fun as it has been to watch the two old dudes storm back on the tour and win everything in sight, the unspoken flip side of that was that the underperforming 20-somethings had failed to inherit the game. Maybe that’s finally beginning to change.