Assume by default that Rafael Nadal wins any big event on clay. Take it as a given that his teeth are pressing into the trophy well before the first match gets underway. This has been true for many long swaths of the last decade, but it has maybe never been truer than right now, with Rafa still bull-strong at 31, his rival contemporaries resting, broken, or only half-alive, and an unreliable gaggle of kids struggling to even inconvenience him. For a non-Rafa champion to be crowned anywhere on dirt—Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, Paris—someone has to have pulled off the unlikely and unenviable task of defeating the sickest athlete to ever set foot on it.
Dominic Thiem did what no one else managed to do on clay in the entire year of 2017: defeat Rafael Nadal. Last year, he did it in the Italian Open quarterfinals in straight sets.
Then 23 years old, Thiem could have retired on the spot and have some decent clay bona fides to rest on. And he also could have kept playing with renewed confidence, now that the path to the title has been cleared of its most imposing obstacle. But the next day, perhaps drained by that Herculean labor, Thiem got smoked 6-1, 6-0 in the semifinals by Novak Djokovic, who was not looking so great himself and was in turn defeated 6-4, 6-3 in the final by 20-year-old wunderkind Alexander Zverev. Thiem took care of the GOAT, then Zverev enjoyed the fruits of his labor and claimed what was then the biggest title of his career. It was the only event that clay season that Rafa entered and did not win. You have to really sneak those in edgewise.
Nothing besides Rafa’s own joints can slow him down for long on his favorite terrain. After that loss to Thiem, Nadal proceeded to win 50 straight sets on clay, setting a new tour record on any single surface. The man who ended that streak last Friday was, once again, Dominic Thiem, this time in the quarterfinal at Madrid. It was a stirring upset, wherein the one dude who can rival Rafa’s heavy topspin intentionally played tennis at the very outermost limits of his ability. “If I just played like I would normally, you have no chance,” Thiem said after the upset. “It has to be a special day—the shots have to work—and that was the case today.” He stuck to the blueprint that works for him: Close your eyes, bash the fuzz off the ball, and pray that it lands somewhere legal. In the current field, Thiem, now 24, looks like the only player who can hit Rafa off clay with anything close to regularity, once in every three tries.
This time, he did not faceplant the day after, but he tragically once again couldn’t finish the job. Thiem beat Kevin Anderson in the semifinal, setting up a final against Zverev, the kid whose path he had cleared last year, but he had to settle for a runner-up trophy. Zverev, who did not see his serve broken all week in Rome, rolled 6-4, 6-4, notching his 18th consecutive set on clay. He seemed much growlier than usual.
Zverev now has three of these Masters trophies to Thiem’s zero; he has zero career wins over Rafa to Thiem’s three. Beating Rafa is a feat unto itself, but it does not guarantee that the hardware will follow. In fact, you’re probably better off getting someone else to take care of him for you.