In a clash between surely the two best clay courters currently around, defending champion and world #1 Rafael Nadal takes on Dominic Thiem, the only man to beat him last year on the red dirt. Both men have had years interrupted by injury. For Nadal this is his first tournament since the Australian Open where he was forced to withdraw from his quarterfinal with Marin Cilic due to injury. Thiem suffered a minor ankle fracture in March that kept him out for over a month. But who will win this one?
Nadal and Thiem have met seven times over the course of their careers in a head-to-head that the Spaniard leads five matches to two. It was Nadal who won their first match back in 2014 at Roland Garros, defeating the young Austrian comfortably 6-2 6-2 6-3 on his way to the title. Thiem had his revenge in Buenos Aires two years later, upsetting Nadal in the semifinals in a tight three set battle that went to a tiebreaker in the third.
Nadal got the better of Thiem in Monte Carlo later that year in the third round, defeating the younger man 7-5 6-3. 2017 saw them meet four more times on the clay. Nadal won the first two in back-to-back finals in Barcelona and Madrid, winning in straight sets on both occasions. Thiem then handed Nadal his only clay court loss of the year in the Rome quarterfinals in a dominant 6-4 6-3 win. But it was Nadal who came out on top in their most important match yet, brushing aside Thiem in straight sets in the Roland Garros quarterfinals.
Path to the quarterfinals
Both Nadal and Thiem received first round byes. That saw Nadal begin his Monte Carlo campaign against Aljaz Bedene, who has recently reverted to representing Slovenia after a spell playing under the British flag. Bedene proved unable to challenge Nadal and was handed a chastening 1-6 3-6 loss. That set up a meeting with the young Russian Karen Khachanov. Nadal put in another very impressive performance, defeating Khachanov 6-3 6-2.
Thiem opened his tournament with a tricky test against Andrey Rublev, who last year reached the US Open quarterfinals. It became even more difficult for Thiem when he dropped the first set to the Russian. But the world #7 fought back to win in three 5-7 7-5 7-5. Standing between him and the quarterfinals was two-time former champion Novak Djokovic. It was the former world #1 who made the better start, winning the opener on a tiebreak. But he seemed to run out of steam thereafter, and Thiem broke twice in the second and third sets to wrap up the win.
How do they match up?
Thiem demonstrated last year in Rome that he is one of the very few players able to hit through Nadal on a clay court. His forehand is his most versatile weapon, with the Austrian capable of both flattening out the shot and hitting it with heavy topspin. He deployed angles impressively against Djokovic, and particularly in the latter stages of the match was able to stretch the Serbian out wide, before finishing points into the open court.
But Djokovic, for all his quality, is currently far from his best, and Thiem faces a significantly sterner test of his offensive capabilities against Nadal. The Spaniard is unquestionably the best mover on the clay currently playing and his court coverage will pose Thiem a real problem. He will also be able to hurt the Austrian with his groundstrokes. The Nadal forehand is a formidable weapon and his backhand isn’t far behind, allowing Nadal to dominate from the baseline.
Thiem has showed impressive battling qualities in his two matches in Monte Carlo. But he hasn’t shown the kind of outright quality it takes to put Nadal down in the dust on the clay. Nadal, however, looked frighteningly good against Bedene and Khachanov. Unless Thiem can find a big step up in quality before their quarterfinal clash the outcome is only going to end in Nadal’s favour. Expect the world’s best to win in straight sets.
Who do you think will win the match? Let us know in the comments below!