If there was any doubt that Dominic Thiem poses the biggest threat to Rafael Nadal’s Roland Garros title defence this spring, the Austrian provided further proof to his cause on Friday with his 7-5, 6-3 defeat of the Spaniard in the Madrid quarter-finals
With his one victory, Thiem delivered a triple-punch to Nadal.
The No. 5 seed snapped Nadal’s 50-set, 21-match winning streak on clay, he ended the Mallorcan’s title defence in the Spanish capital and interrupted his reign as world No. 1 – for now – as Roger Federer returns to the top when the new rankings are released on Monday.
Thiem was the last man to take a defeat, or take a set off, Nadal last year in Rome before the Spaniard began his streak, and he was the man who ended it on Friday, almost 12 months later.
Nadal was out of sorts from the start, looking nervous, committing errors, and landing his groundstrokes in the middle of the service box.
The showdown was a far cry from the 6-0, 6-2 beatdown Nadal had delivered to Thiem in Monte Carlo a few weeks ago, and it wasn’t just because of the difference in altitude and conditions between the two locations.
“I think that today I wasn’t reading the ball well enough to be able to handle the situation, to put him in places where he didn’t feel comfortable to play,” explained a disappointed Nadal after the match.
“The fact also that the ball here flies a lot, and he puts a lot of topspin on the ball. I was not good enough with my forehand or my backhand to open to his forehand, then to find a space to the backhand.
“I wasn’t putting myself in position. He always had position to move around and to play a good shot, to strike the ball in a comfortable position for him.
“From there on, it’s difficult to harm a player like him because he’s 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.”
Before the tournament started, Thiem sounded confident in his chances if he faced Nadal. The Austrian is now only one of three players – alongside Novak Djokovic and Gaston Gaudio – to defeat the Spaniard on three or more occasions on clay.
Showcasing arguably his best tennis of the season thus far, the 24-year-old was dictating play from the start, and wrapped up the win in just under two hours to set up a semi-final against Kevin Anderson.
While Thiem admits the conditions in Madrid suit him perfectly – it is where he reached his first Masters 1000 final last year – he also believes he produced exceptional tennis to overcome the King of Clay.
“I had to really increase my level compared to Monte-Carlo to beat Rafa here. He’s in a really great form. He won 21 matches on clay and 50 sets (in a row). This is amazing. So I had to play an extraordinary match, and that’s what I did,” said Thiem.
“Obviously two weeks ago in Monte-Carlo, he killed me Love and 2. It was very important I went in with a positive attitude, with an attitude to win. Like this I should go in every match against him.”
Nadal now heads to Rome, where he has been drawn to potentially face Thiem in another quarter-final.
Federer will be back to the world No. 1 spot, but the Swiss is out of action until the grass season, which means Nadal could return to the top if he wins Rome.
Nadal insists he is not too preoccupied by the No. 1 ranking at the moment.
“You cannot be No. 1 five months without competing,” said Nadal, who had knee troubles end of last season, and was out from end of January until April with a psoas injury.
“Of course, this is the ATP ranking. I think from Shanghai till Monte-Carlo, I hadn’t finished a single tournament. We’re talking about a lot of months that I gave up.
“If we were talking about the ranking of one year, if I played really good in one period of the year, which I’ve done, let’s be clear, I have been playing really good recently. Last year I made it to the finals in every single tournament. This year till now I had only one or two tournaments that I had played. This is the reality of this year.
“Five months without playing in a tournament means that I cannot be No. 1. I’m not even thinking about that. I’m not going to keep the No. 1 today. At the end of the year we will see what happens.
“Having said this, I think I placed myself in a good position more or less. I am No. 3 in the race of the year, which is the most important thing. I still have two good weeks on clay, and then I’ll keep on moving forward. This is the reality.”
Despite his disappointment with his form, Nadal is not too concerned about how this loss affects his chances in Rome or Roland Garros. He is aware of the strong record he has put together so far this clay season, and isn’t panicking.
“Being honest, I am not — as I said a lot of times — when I am winning, I am not super happy, and when I’m losing, I’m not super sad. Is not a drama that I lost the match, no? I don’t have to do a lot of things different,” said Nadal.
“I won 50 straight sets on this surface. Today I lost the match. It was not my day. But that’s part of this sport. That’s part of the sport in general. So I can’t go back to the hotel and think that I have to do a lot of things different to prepare the next events because will not be something that will be very smart for my part.”
For Thiem, he will have to overturn a 0-6 head-to-head record against Anderson if he wants to reach the Madrid final for a second consecutive year.
Anderson made it to his first Masters 1000 semi-final, on his 11th attempt, with a 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-3 victory over Dusan Lajovic on Friday.
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