After a dominant start to 2017, Rafael Nadal lost to Dominic Thiem, proving a new vulnerability rarely seen on clay
After struggling with injuries for several seasons and seeing his losses begin to add up, many thought Rafael Nadal would never reach his old dominant form and would have to retire within a year or two. On clay, the surface he is widely considered the greatest ever on, he had fallen before the semifinal in the French Open twice in a row after winning the tournament nine times in ten years. He finished 2016 ranked 9th, his lowest year-end ranking since 2004.
Nadal has had a complete turnaround this season, with a magical run to the Australian Open final and an appearance in the Miami Open final in the hardcourt season, both losses to longtime rival Roger Federer. Once clay court season hit, Nadal brought tennis fans back a decade with his dominant performances on the way to titles at the Masters in Monte Carlo and Madrid, as well as the Barcelona tournament in his home country. In the 15 matches he played over those three weeks, he dropped only two sets, both being in first round matches, en route to many unquestionable victories over some of the best players in the world. Nadal once again seemed to be the unbeatable clay court player tennis fans witnessed for years and years.
Last week in Rome, Nadal become vulnerable for the first time all season, losing 6-4 6-3 to young standout Dominic Thiem. Although a significant upset, it was not out of nowhere. Thiem is a talented player who also excels on clay, and who reached last year’s French Open semifinal. He also triumphed over Nadal on clay last year on his way to the title in Buenos Aires. Thiem is a baseliner with a powerful forehand in addition to a strong one-handed backhand. He cracked the top-10 in June of last year at the age of 22, and is seen as a future star once the “Big 4” era begins to fade. He has beaten many top players, but beating Nadal at a high-profile clay court tournament is a lofty task for any player in the history of tennis. This win showed that Nadal, although still the sure favorite at Roland Garros, can be beaten on clay.
Thiem had admitted the challenge he was facing going up against Nadal before the match. It was their third match on clay in 2017, with both previous matches straight-set Nadal victories. This record actually helped Thiem, as he entered the match with nothing to lose. Thiem came out hitting huge groundstrokes and attacking the ball quickly. He took Nadal off of his game, and countered Nadal’s power and spin with brilliant angles and more power. The big groundstrokes from Thiem led to quicker points, preventing Nadal from long, grinding points that give him a tremendous advantage. He has worn down opponents for years, so Thiem’s ability to create quicker points helped him stay fresh. Thiem’s mental game was one of his biggest advantages, knowing that he was a massive underdog. He went for shots that would normally be risky and questionable to attempt, and was able to make a majority of them, giving him momentum that led to victory.
Other players will have a challenging time defeating Nadal in the French Open, even after this loss. They will have to place an even larger emphasis on quicker points because even with his injuries Nadal is in superb shape, and a long, grinding match on clay will almost always go in his favor. The five set format gives him an even larger advantage in this category, but keeping the points short through power and angles takes away this advantage. The aggressive style Thiem used will be the primary way Nadal can be beaten. Anyone standing across the court from the greatest clay court player ever will be expected to lose. Instead of just sticking to their game and inevitably being defeated, they must take a step or two into the baseline on groundstrokes, hit much more aggressive shots both with power and location, and stay strong mentally. There is no direct blueprint to take out Nadal, but Thiem showed it can be done, and displayed the ways to do it.
Even with this loss, Nadal must still be considered the clear favorite to capture his 10th French Open title. Thiem deserves to be considered, but lacks experience on the largest stages. Novak Djokovic seems to have finally found his form, and will battle to defend his first title in Paris. Otherwise, Andy Murray has seriously struggled all of 2017, and will need a massive change in his game to contend. Stan Wawrinka has also struggled this season, but tends to step his game up for majors, and has a French Open title to his name. Otherwise, the road is clear for Nadal, with Djokovic and Thiem the two most serious threats, but yet another Nadal triumph in Paris seems slightly less likely than it did a week ago, although he still boasts a 17-1 clay court record this season and will be playing where he has won so many times.
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