Enter Dominic Thiem, the dull boy who is good on dirt. For all his fits elsewhere, the Austrian has mastered clay, a surface that slows things down enough for his deep court positioning, thumping strokes, and one-track mind. He’s the only player who can justifiably hold any ember of hope when facing Rafael Nadal on this surface. Nadal has played 30 matches on clay in the last year, winning 29; Thiem was the only survivor of that outrageous run. And what an impressive win that was.
Today in the quarterfinal at Monte Carlo, the two met again, in different circumstances. Nadal was not mid-rampage, but was instead recovering from injury. It was his first tour event after limping out of the Australian Open quarterfinal. Thiem, meanwhile, came into the match with a 10-1 record on the 2018 clay season, and had just dusted a somewhat less mummified-seeming Novak Djokovic in three sets. Look how well he’d been cracking his backhand this week:
Hopes were understandably high for a clash of clay heavyweights: hellish amounts of topspin, gorgeous movement all around. That good clay court shit.
Those hopes were extinguished within minutes of the match starting. Kid got smoked, 6-0, 6-2. It took him 52 minutes to win his first game; it’s never a good sign when the crowd is cheering a routine hold of serve. Rafa, for his part, was just doing his usual thing, sliding around, whipsawing forehands and bashing his two-hander. He won an astonishing 67 percent of the total points in the match, a figure right up there with some of the most pitiless beatdowns he’s delivered in the past. Here is a representative, suffocating sample of that match. It’s a feat to even stay in the point.
Rafa has simply got too much sauce—for Thiem, and for anyone currently on tour, really, as Federer sits out the whole dirt season, Djokovic is just starting to get back on his feet, and no one named Grigor or Sascha or Nick can ever be trusted. Nadal, who is rebooting all his clay win streaks after that sole loss to Thiem last year, now has won 12 straight matches on the surface, and 32 straight sets. He has lost just 11 games through three matches in Monte Carlo.
So, here is a pretty meek prediction: Nadal is going to win this title, and then he’s going to win one or two more. He’s going to rob someone of his will to live and he’s going to remove a man’s soul from his body. And we will likely be playing out the same silly hypothetical before the French Open. Nadal is a hurricane, it’s a gift to watch him tear through entire generations of players, and if there’s any disappointment in all this, it’s that he has levels well beyond what he’s had to display thus far. There is the question of whether he still has those levels, but right now the most urgent question is whether there is anyone even capable of pushing him hard enough for him to reveal them.