Dominic Thiem Got Closer, But Rafael Nadal Still Stepped On Him

Last year, in the first major final of his life, Dominic Thiem just seemed happy to be there. Flattened by a Rafael Nadal charging toward his 11th French Open title? That builds character. A dusty tennis great heartlessly roasting you at the trophy ceremony? Whatever, no shame in being outmatched.

But the relative stature of these two players had shifted, in a small but perceptible way, over the year between that final and Sunday’s rematch. Thiem had previously proved himself Nadal’s one consistent threat on clay, and his position was only improving.

Time, for one, was on his side. Thiem, now 25, moved another year closer to his physical prime; Nadal, now 33, moved another year away from his. Since that loss, Thiem hit the highest ranking of his career, No. 4 in the world, and won himself a Masters title on hard court, which isn’t even his preferred surface. Thiem gave Nadal five vicious sets in the best match of last year’s U.S. Open, and then won their only matchup on clay this year in Barcelona. Thiem was becoming a worthier adversary, if not yet Rafa’s equal.

And that’s more or less the same story of this year’s final, which Nadal won, 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1. The score line undersells just how competitive this match was at the front end. The Austrian, coming off a rain-delayed, two-day five-setter against Novak Djokovic, had to do this all over again.

“That’s a unique and also brutal thing I guess in our sport, tennis,” he said afterward. “I beat yesterday one of the biggest legends of our game. And not even 24 hours later I have to step on court against another amazing legend of our game, against the best clay court player of all time. That also shows how difficult nowadays to win a Grand Slam.” He’s not wrong.

Given the circumstances, which had him on court for three straight days, Thiem looked incredible in the first set. He broke early with some enormous hitting. Rafa’s defense demands that a player “win” a point several times over—look at all the gets he’s scraping up from the middle of the court in this first exchange—and Thiem was up to the task. The Austrian crushes the ball as hard as any player on tour, and he did it with enough variety and consistency to force Nadal out of this second point here.

Nadal broke back immediately in his usual deflating way, but Thiem somehow kept the knife to his throat. This sequence of cross-court forehands, getting scarier in pace and angle, was as well as anyone played Nadal this year. Rarely will the Spaniard spit out an unforced error from the baseline when he didn’t even have to run to retrieve the ball, but this one was coaxed out by the punishing depth and high bounce of Thiem’s shots. That’s typically Nadal’s signature—Thiem at his best feeds him a bit of his own medicine.

They fought through some long games in the middle of that first set as Thiem tried to claw back the break, and it looked like he might pull it off. He seemed confident enough in the 3-3 game to trot out a clinical drop shot-lob combo. Later in the same game, he capitalized on a rare Nadal mistake—he should’ve put away that overhead—to steal another point. Looking back at these points again, which seemed so inspired at the time, they now just underscore how ridiculously hard a player has to work to snatch a single point from Rafa on clay, and make the enterprise of beating him in best-of-five seem farcical in its face.

Nadal would break and take that first set. The second set held dead even as both players protected their serves. Nadal won only five points on Thiem’s serve in the set. Thiem won only five points on Nadal’s serve. Fortunately for the Austrian, four his five were grouped together in one late return game, allowing him to break and then serve out the set to level the match. That was the last time things would look remotely competitive.

As Thiem put it perfectly in his presser: “After these two sets I dropped a little bit my level, and then Rafa, who won this tournament 12 times, he stepped on me.”

Nadal wasted no time doing a jig on him in his tiny shorts. Thiem woke up in tennis jail, one that has claimed so many brave souls in the past. Nadal took the third set in 24 minutes, winning 16 of 17 points in one stretch. He won 12 of the match’s last 14 games.

Last year Thiem won no sets against Nadal in the French Open final; this year he won one set. Next year, maybe two? After that, who knows? He believes in incremental progress, after all. It truly feels like the only thing separating Thiem from trophies in Paris is, well, the inconvenient fact of the greatest clay courter ever. Twelve trophies deep, Nadal’s the best to ever do it, and no one will ever replicate that body of work. All that changes is the fit of his pants and the defeated face across the net.

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