(Photo credit: REUTERS/Susana Vera)
In a clash between the undisputed king of clay and the man widely considered to be the second best clay courter in the game, Rafael Nadal takes on Dominic Thiem. The world #1 already has two titles to his name this clay court season having won in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, without dropping a set at either tournament. For Thiem the clay court season has so far been something of a disappointment having failed to go beyond the quarterfinals in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. But who will win this one?
Nadal and Thiem have met eight times so far in their careers, and interestingly all eight meetings have come on clay courts. Nadal won the first in 2014 at Roland Garros at a time when Thiem was a highly-rated but unproven young gun and proved no match for the great Spaniard, losing in straight sets 2-6 2-6 3-6. He got his revenge two years later in the Buenos Aires semifinals winning 6-4 4-6 7-6. He proved unable to repeat the victory later that year in Monte Carlo, losing 5-7 6-3.
Nadal was again victorious in their fourth meeting, brushing aside Thiem’s challenge in the Barcelona final last year to win 6-4 6-1. Thiem pushed him further a week later in the Madrid Open final, but was again unable to win a set, losing 6-7 4-6 in what was his first Masters 1000 final. However, he upset the Spaniard in Rome last year, winning 6-3 6-3. But it was Nadal who was dominant in the French Open semifinals, destroying Thiem 6-3 6-4 6-0. He was even more comfortable when they met in Monte Carlo this year, winning 6-0 6-2.
Path to the quarterfinals
Nadal, the top seed in Madrid, received a first round bye and so began his tournament against Gael Monfils. The French showman had just two wins against Nadal from fifteen attempts and none on clay. In short, his chances going into the match did not look good, and despite asking the crowd for advice, Monfils was dismissed 6-3 6-1 by Nadal. The world #1 was again a comfortable victor in his third round clash with Diego Schwartzman, advancing 6-3 6-4.
Dominic Thiem, who also received a first round bye, has endured a rather more difficult route to the quarterfinals. He opened his Madrid campaign against Argentina’s Federico Delbonis. It was Delbonis who took the first set, winning it with a late break. But Thiem managed to battle through to the third round in three sets 5-7 6-3 7-5, where he faced Borna Coric. It was a match the Croatian will feel he should have won having served for it up 6-2 5-4. But Thiem broke back and won through 2-6 7-6 6-4.
How do they match up?
Both men, at their best, look to dominate proceedings from the baseline. Their main tools for doing so are their powerful forehands. Nadal hits his forehand with more topspin than almost anyone on the Tour, which is particularly effective on a clay court. Thiem is able to summon plenty of topspin himself. Both men will be aware of the damage their opponent can do with their forehand, and thus will doubtless look to limit their opportunities to do so as much as possible.
Part of the problem for Thiem in this match up is how well Nadal defends. The Spaniard is arguably the best mover in the game on a clay court, and also has the ability to use the ball well at the end of his range. That makes him incredibly difficult to hit through. Thiem lacks those same defensive abilities, though he is a good mover, meaning that Nadal doesn’t typically face the same difficulties in trying to penetrate his defences.
Thiem has looked far from convincing so far in this clay court season. The opposite is true of Nadal who has now won fifty sets in a row on the surface to break McEnroe’s record of 49 straight sets won on a single surface. Expect the Spaniard to make it 52 in a row against Thiem, who isn’t in anything like the form he would need to be to provide Nadal with a real challenge.