There may have been weeping and gnashing of teeth in Barcelona when Rafael Nadal and his 21-match winning streak bit the red dust last week in Madrid. But you can bet they were offering moving champagne toasts to Dominic Thiem, the man who beat him, all over Paris that evening.
Nadal’s loss to No. 7-ranked Thiem in the quarterfinals was like a jolt of much-needed adrenaline for the upcoming French Open. The odds on Nadal securing his record 11th title at Roland Garros — and 17th Grand Slam title overall — had been snowballing in recent weeks. Even the habitually cautious pundits were cringing at the prospect of having to “analyze” Nadal’s chances of hoisting the hardware in Paris.
Justin Gimelstob of the Tennis Channel was bold enough to say what many where thinking: “No right-hander with a one-handed backhand is going to beat Nadal on clay this year.”
Guess what? Thiem is a right-hander. With a one-handed backhand. Alexander Zverev also is a righty, and he has a useful one-handed backhand in addition to a lethal two-hander. That’s significant, because the on-fire 21-year-old German, already ranked No. 3, mastered Thiem in the Madrid final Sunday with a stunning display of aggressive tennis.
Madrid is Zverev’s third Masters 1000 title. He won it in Nadal-esque fashion, without dropping a set. He’s just the fifth active player to win three of the top-tier ATP 1000 events on his résumé; the others are named Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray.
French fans, who always have prized artistic tennis over Nadal’s gritty, muscular game, can now hope a little more realistically for a tournament not dominated wire-to-wire by Nadal.
Thiem also was the last person to beat Nadal on clay, a year ago at the Rome Masters. He may not be in Rafa’s head, but he’s certainly taking a peek. Nadal clearly doesn’t want him messing around in there.
When Nadal was asked after the match if he was especially concerned about the threat Thiem represents, the 31-year-old got a little huffy, reminding the reporter, “Well, three weeks ago, I beat him 6-0, 6-3. I don’t know if that’s a tough player or not.”
That blowout win by Nadal was on slower clay in damp Monte Carlo, where Thiem’s aggressive topspin shots didn’t bounce quite as high nor did they take as much time away from Nadal as the high altitude and quicker courts in Madrid. But at some point, trying to find the answer to why Nadal lost by splitting hairs or identifying some magic bullet in Thiem’s possession is a waste of time.
Nothing, not even Nadal’s mind-blowing dominance on clay, lasts forever. He established a new record of 50 consecutive sets won the day before he met Thiem, but in their clash, the 24-year-old Austrian hit the ball harder, deeper and better.
Nadal certainly has had better days in Madrid’s Caja Magica (Magic Box) but, as he said to reporters, “Thiem is a very powerful player. He has a lot of strength; he strikes the ball very hard, very violently. When you receive that ball, it’s very difficult to respond.”
This loss by Nadal was less surprising than the fact that he won those 50 consecutive sets on clay before it happened. It’s an extraordinary feat, given the way even the top players can crash and burn on days when they are not at peak level. A Nadal, or Federer, can survive most players on such a day, but certainly not all of them.
“We’re not playing a game where the differences [between the players] are big or massive,” Nadal pointed out. “The differences are very small.”
Those differences seem even smaller and more threatening to Nadal now that Zverev also has inserted himself into the Roland Garros sweepstakes. There are other players out there — Juan Martin del Potro, Grigor Dimitrov and Marin Cilic among them — whose games are big enough to take advantage of any hitch in Nadal’s stride or glitch in his confidence.
This could all backfire in the face of Nadal’s rivals. The end of his streak also reduces the pressure on him. Do they really want to see the King of Clay shake out the cobwebs and hit the reset button? This week’s Rome Masters is the last major tune-up for the French Open. Nadal and Zverev are, respectively, the top two seeds. Thiem and Nadal may meet again in the quarterfinals.
The contenders will need to believe Nadal can be vulnerable, which became a little easier when Nadal’s latest red-dirt spell was broken by Thiem. As the winner said in his news conference, “A very important thing also was that I went in with the attitude that I can beat him. Like this, I should go in every match against him. Also in maybe the next upcoming tournaments.”
Fair warning. Pop that cork.