Photo: Julian Finney (Getty)

Every once in a while an athlete will just make you eat your words and your low expectations. Typically they’ll do this by winning; on Tuesday night, Dominic Thiem did it while losing his U.S. Open quarterfinal, pyrotechnically.

For various reasons, Dominic Thiem had me skeptical. His ball-bashing does not always seem to be the most deliberate and opponent-specific strategy; his tour schedule is still an overbooked logistical nightmare. He has struggled to adapt his clay-friendly game to other surfaces. He seemed a little too wedded to his deep-court, net-avoidant ways, and once told me, when asked about how he would adjust to faster hard courts, that “no one is going to change the style of play.” In fairness: the 25-year-old has already made a French Open final and two semis, and that title will be his as soon as ... Rafael Nadal decides to schedule a long impromptu vacation to not-Paris for the first week of June? Or retires. Whichever comes first.

Because while Thiem’s high-risk strategy has proved sustainable against Rafa in best-of-three—he’s been the only player to best him on clay for the last two seasons—he has yet to have success translating that to best-of-five. In that sense he is not alone. No player now on tour seems capable of occupying this kind of super-aggressive, rage-adjacent fugue state—“red-lining,” in tennis speak—long enough to down the Spaniard in best-of-five on his favorite clay courts. And no one can just run him down, either. Nadal smushed his would-be usurper in straight sets in the 2018 French Open final. Some late-match cramps in his finger appeared to cause him more distress than the entirety of Dominic Thiem.

But after that quarterfinal—after this shot, and this first set specifically—it was a little easier to conceive of Thiem Actually Doing It.

A slow start against Rafa is a death sentence familiar to hundreds of poor saps in this sport. You’re coming to your senses, finding your rhythm a little bit, and you’re down a set and two breaks. Thiem, who had played Nadal 10 times, knew this too well entering this match their first meeting off clay. The No. 9 seed showed up and pounced, running up a 6-0 first set in 24 minutes, conceding just seven points. This was a novelty for Nadal, who has been on the receiving end of a bagel just seven times in the last decade, and who is constitutionally incapable of “letting the set go” or “tanking” or some of the other things that human athletes with finite resources might be tempted to do in apparently futile situations. Nadal fights. But my eyeballs, and the eyeballs of millions of witnesses, assure me that this did happen: Rafa got shut out in that first frame.

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The Spaniard managed to reset completely and was soon back to his smothering self, breaking twice in the second set. And after facing the first signs of resistance, Dominic Thiem didn’t disappear. He didn’t wither, like so many players might, trying go toe-to-toe with Rafa on a slow court on a wet night. He somehow did not tire of hitting tennis balls the way he does. Which is to say: unremitting pace, deep positioning and lots of preparatory footwork to set himself up just right behind every ball order to wind up and whack it. The practical opposite of “easy power.” Thiem exerts himself. When Nadal and Thiem meet up and play their best tennis, the ball always loses. In the end it didn’t earn the Austrian this third-set break, but this rally was a staggering high-water mark for the match:

Through five sets, this quarterfinal doubled as newly glowing résumé: Thiem can produce the same extreme topspin as Rafa when he wants, can flatten his groundstrokes out for even greater pace, has the movement to hang with him in tendon-shredding rallies. And he boasts a bigger serve with a nasty kick that can snag him some free points—18 aces, to Rafa’s three—and that kept up 130-mph heat even after four hours of play. In terms of sheer repeatability and placement Thiem is not quite the ball-striking genius Nadal is, and he’ll need to go about his career a little differently. Stan Wawrinka, another slugging one-hander, might be a more realistic model. Hopefully the Austrian will find better patterns of play to deploy his power, smarter ways to position himself on the return. Thiem is fast, but he will get exploited if he makes a habit of drifting this far from the baseline just to run around his forehand, giving up tons of ground along both vertical and horizontal axes. It’s a curious decision for a man with a backhand as good as his, and Rafa was smart enough to keep him honest:

Nadal always finds a way through. He has co-starred in all the best five-setters of the year, and if you know anything about him, you can understand why. No one else can storm into the 337th point of a five-hour match just as stubborn and unshakeable as they were at love-all. Something has to give, or grow bored, or hopeless, or desperate—and it is almost never Rafael Nadal. As the scenery and scoreboard and his scalp all change, Rafa just persists. In the best match of the U.S. Open, he nearly found someone who could keep up. At 5-6 in the fifth-set tie break, it was a routine overhead that did him in, but there is still so much more for Dominic Thiem to take comfort in. One (still) far-out day, there will either be no Rafa obstructing the path, or Thiem will have figured out a way around him.