The genuinely epic US Open quarterfinal between Rafa Nadal and Dominic Thiem, which Nadal eventually won in a fifth set tie-break, proved two things beyond doubt. First, it showed that the US Open is absolutely right to have such fifth set deciders and that the other Majors should follow suit immediately, to prevent a repeat of the ludicrously long 26-24 fifth set between Kevin Anderson and John Isner in the Wimbledon semi-final this year, which effectively ruined any chance either man had of seriously competing in the final two days later. Secondly, it demonstrated conclusively that Thiem is the best of the so-called “Next Gen” (or next generation) of players who are trying to replace the “Holy Trinity” of tennis – Federer, Nadal and Djokovic – at the top of the men’s game.
Even before this year’s US Open, Thiem had shown that he is probably the only young player (he only turned 25 this week) who can seriously challenge the three current greats in men’s tennis, and in particular that he may be the only player – young or old – who can stop Nadal’s seemingly endless domination on clay. Since Federer and Nadal began their remarkable late career comeback at the 2017 Australian Open, which has seen both men winning Majors again and returning to something like their best ever form, Thiem has been the only young Turk to give the great Sultans of the game a real contest.
Thiem is the only man to have beaten Nadal on clay in the last two seasons (defeating him in Rome in 2017 and in Madrid earlier this year) and he backed up that impressive run of form on the red dirt by reaching his first Grand Slam Final at this year’s French Open. Although he eventually lost in Paris in straight sets, for almost the entirety of the first set Thiem gave Nadal almost as good as he got back in return, in particular hitting some devastating winners with his sumptuous one-handed backhand. Only a disastrous service game at the end of the first set gifted it to Nadal, after which Thiem never recovered.
If Thiem’s first set in the French Open Final was good, however, his first set in the US Open quarterfinal was sensational, as he achieved the truly remarkable feat of winning it 6-0. Thus, he became only the fourth man to “bagel” the great Spaniard at a Major, although the fact that he then became the first of those four men not to convert that first set drubbing into a match win shows he still has some way to go before he can finally win a Slam.
Nevertheless, in the next four sets in New York, as Nadal inevitably came roaring back, Thiem showed that he not only has the sheer tennis ability but the outstanding physical stamina to compete with the best current players (who also, of course, happen to be probably the best male tennis players ever). Over nearly five hours, in the kind of sapping heat and humidity that had forced even the great Roger Federer to sweat profusely for apparently the first time ever in his defeat to John Millman, Thiem showed he was made of incredibly tough stuff. All those winter training sessions spent lugging logs in the Alps, at the insistence of his legendarily tough coach Günter Bresnik, completely paid off, as he narrowly lost the second and third sets (6-4 and 7-5 respectively) before taking Nadal to two successive tie-breaks, the first of which he won before finally succumbing 7-5 in the final set decider.
Such was the almost gladiatorial nature of the combat that Nadal was moved to genuine praise of Thiem afterwards, saying, “I felt very sorry for Dominic….He’s a great guy and a great player”, while Thiem himself echoed Roger Federer’s famous comment after his 2017 Australian Open Final win against Nadal by saying, “I think this match didn’t deserve a loser”. Thiem may not have deserved to lose, but lose he eventually did, and so the next stage for him is simply to defeat Nadal, Federer or Djokovic in a Major.
Thiem certainly looks the best equipped of all the players outside the Big Three to challenge them for the greatest prizes in tennis. Last year, he and Alex Zverev decisively moved away from their other supposed young rivals by qualifying for the ATP Tour Finals in London, as opposed to the Next Gen tournament in Milan. This year, Thiem has pulled away from Zverev, comfortably beating him in straight sets in their French Open quarterfinal and then building on that success by reaching the quarterfinals in New York, where Zverev lost in the third round to his fellow German, Philipp Kohlschreiber.
The difference in Thiem and Zverev’s fortunes in the Big Apple strengthens the suspicion that although Zverev may have the more powerful and even more aesthetically pleasing game, Thiem has by far the more formidable mind and sheer will to win. It is certainly impossible at the moment to imagine any other young player than Thiem pushing Nadal so close in a Major, let alone actually beating him on clay, as Thiem has already done twice.
Of course, it is one thing to prove yourself the “best of the rest”, as Thiem has done this year, but quite another to beat the best, especially in the Majors. That is the next task for Thiem. However, although he has done more than enough in the last two years to suggest that he can finally overcome the gerontocracy that still rules men’s tennis, he will be mindful of the slightly older men who have gone before him and failed to achieve that goal. The “generation” of players that immediately followed Nadal, Federer and Djokovic – men such as Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic and in particular Grigor Dimitrov – have continually been found wanting in their efforts to reach the top of their game, with only one of their number (Marin Cilic at the 2014 US Open) actually going the whole way and winning a Major.
Thiem has already done enough to suggest that he can do better than the generation of men immediately above him. And if he can go the extra mile in 2018 and finally win a Slam, then the brightest young star in men’s tennis might finally usurp Nadal et al, and bring about at least the beginning of the end of the sport’s greatest ever era.