World #1 Rafael Nadal will look to continue his US Open title-defence when he takes on ninth seed Dominic Thiem, who is competing in his first Grand Slam quarterfinal away from the clay and a fourth overall. It has been another magnificent season for Nadal, highlighted by an 11th French Open and Masters titles in Monte Carlo, Rome and Toronto. Thiem, meanwhile, has finally found some form after a post-clay court season malaise. But who will come out on top?
Nadal and Thiem have met ten times so far on Tour, and, remarkably, all have been contested on clay courts. Nadal leads the head-to-head 7-3, having claimed victory three-times at Roland Garros, including a 6-4 6-3 6-2 win in the final this year and a 6-3 6-4 6-0 win in the last four in 2017. He also has wins over the Austrian at all three of the clay court Masters, including in the final in Madrid last year. But Thiem has beaten Nadal in Buenos Aires, Rome and in Madrid earlier this year.
Path to the quarterfinals
Nadal began his US Open campaign with a victory when his compatriot former world #3 David Ferrer was forced to retire in the second set, in what was his final Grand Slam appearance. Nadal then hammered Vasek Pospisil 6-3 6-4 6-2, but he was pushed hard in the third round by the powerful Karen Khachanov. He came through 5-7 7-5 7-6 7-6, but was again taken to four by Hamburg champion Nikoloz Basilashvili, before beating the Georgian 6-3 6-3 6-7 6-4.
Thiem opened his tournament in New York by thrashing Sofia champion Mirza Basic 6-3 6-1 6-4. But he was given rather more trouble by American #3 Steve Johnson. Indeed, when Johnson won the third set to take a 2-1 lead, Thiem looked to be in trouble. But he dug in and trusted in his big weapons, and was rewarded, coming back to win 6-7 6-3 5-7 6-4 6-1. He then rallied past Taylor Fritz 3-6 6-3 7-6 6-4 before beating 2017 finalist Kevin Anderson in straight sets 7-5 6-2 7-6.
How do they match up?
Nadal was given pause by both Khachanov and Basilashvili, who troubled Nadal with their heavy-hitting from the back of the court. Though he was eventually able to fight off their challenge, hitting 79 winners across the two matches, their performances will have given Thiem confidence. His forehand is a bigger weapon than anything possessed by Khachanov and Basilashvili and he used it to cut Anderson down to size, hitting the majority of his 42 winners in the match from that wing.
With the courts playing quite slowly, he should have the time to continue taking big cuts against Nadal and he will need to. Going for his shots is his only route to victory, but when he is able to hit his spots, as he did in Madrid, even Nadal’s vaunted defensive abilities cannot contain him. Thiem will also need to defend his backhand. If Nadal is able to target that shot regularly, Thiem’s offensive output will take too big of a hit for him to win the match.
If Thiem can play the perfect match, he will beat Nadal. He did it in front of Nadal’s home fans on a clay court, so there’s no reason to think that he can’t do it in New York. But the fact that he can do it, does not mean that he will do it. In most of their encounters, he hasn’t been able to find the combination of accuracy and power he needs to beat Nadal. Nadal will have to work again, but expect him to withstand the Thiem storm and reach the semifinals in four.