STARNBERG, May 15, 2018
To say that Rafael Nadal has been dominant on clay courts has been an understatement, having won 50 straight sets on the surface dating back to 2017. But that streak was ended during the Mutua Madrid Open by Dominic Thiem, who upset Nadal in his home country in a shocking upset. With the French Open on the horizon, can Thiem continue to bring the fight to Nadal and steal the year’s clay Grand Slam from the king of the clay?
Thiem was destroyed by Nadal earlier in the clay court season in a straight-set victory for the Spaniard. That made it even more surprising when Thiem ousted Nadal in Madrid. It was Thiem who was the aggressor in that second meeting, where he moved Nadal around the court seemingly at will en route to the straight sets shocker.
The secret to Thiem’s success in that match was the fact that he took Nadal’s serve much further up the court than he did in their first meeting. That gave Nadal less time to react to Thiem’s returns which gave Thiem the advantage in plenty of points throughout the match. While the result was shocking, it was less shocking when you consider the adjustment in strategy that Thiem used to his advantage.
For Thiem to have the energy to play at such a high level at all is surprising given how much tennis he plays throughout the year. Known as the iron man of the ATP tour due to how many tournaments he plays, the Austrian somehow has managed to maintain his energy levels despite playing more tournaments than most players in the ATP Tour.
Of course, Thiem will be the underdog against Nadal if they were to face off at Roland Garros. Thiem enters the French Open at 6/1 at William Hill while Nadal is at 1/2 odds to win the tournament yet again. Those odds make sense given that Nadal is the undisputed greatest player of all-time on clay courts, but Thiem is certainly his biggest competition at the French this year, given how well he has played on clay over the last couple of clay court seasons.
It will be interesting to see how things play out if Nadal and Thiem meet again in the clay court season. The adjustment made by Thiem to adjust his style of play and take Nadal’s serve higher up the court was an inspired one. But if they play again, Nadal will have the opportunity to adjust hit shot making based on the knowledge that he will have less time to react to Thiem’s returns. The strategic game of chess that will unfold between Thiem and Nadal over the remainder of clay court season will be fascinating to watch.
At the end of the day, the fact that there exists a player who has a chance to defeat Rafael Nadal on clay is an accomplishment in and of itself. Whether or not Thiem can give himself a chance at the biggest clay court of the year, though, is an entirely different challenge.