Thiem Ends Nadal's Clay Winning Streaks & Time At No. 1
Loss means that Federer will return to the top spot on Monday
Dominic Thiem ended Rafael Nadal's 21-match and 50-sets winning streaks on clay — in addition to his latest six-week reign at No. 1 in the ATP Rankings — on Friday at the Mutua Madrid Open. As a result of Nadal’s quarter-final exit, Roger Federer will return to the summit of men’s professional tennis on Monday for the 309th week of his career.
Three weeks on from a humbling loss to Nadal at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters, Thiem played with greater discipline and capitalised on a number of errors from the five-time Madrid champion to triumph 7-5, 6-3 for a place in Saturday’s semi-finals.
“I had to play an extraordinary match, and that's what I did," said Thiem. "It takes a really good match to beat Rafa on clay, but I think a very important thing was that I went in with the attitude that I can beat him. Obviously, two weeks ago in Monte-Carlo, he killed me love and two. It was very important I went into the match with a positive attitude, with an attitude to win.
“I moved well [and] I was physically tough. But always against him, there are long rallies. You get out of breath. My groundstrokes were the best, they were very aggressive. I think I really hurt him with them… I didn't make too many stupid errors. That was important.”
The fifth-seeded Austrian will now look to break a six-match losing streak against sixth seed Kevin Anderson of South Africa in their seventh FedEx ATP Head2Head meeting. The pair has never met before on clay, a surface that has reaped Thiem seven of his nine ATP World Tour trophies.
Thiem maintained his baseline position, putting Nadal under pressure right from the start of their ninth clash, a repeat of the 2017 Madrid final, by taking his forehand and backhand early to deny his Spanish opponent time due to extra pace and depth.
While Thiem could not convert one set point at 5-4, 40/30, missing a backhand down the line, unforced errors from Nadal — particularly on his forehand — gave Thiem a timely reprieve. Having broken Nadal to 15 in the 11th game, at the second time of asking, Thiem kept nerve to wrap up the 75-minute opener with an ace.
When Thiem opened up a 3-1 lead in the second set, courtesy of Nadal’s indecision on a mis-timed forehand to convert a fifth break point opportunity in the third game, the Austrian still wasn’t safe. Thiem recovered from a 15/40 deficit at 1-2, but Nadal kept fighting and got back to 3-3. Yet the momentum shifted back to Thiem, who won 10 of the 11 points from 3-3 to 5-3, 30/0, and deservedly became only the third player – after Gaston Gaudio and Novak Djokovic – to beat Nadal on clay on three occasions (or more).
“Of course, I'm upset,” admitted Nadal. “I tried to come back. I tried to do it a couple of times, but I wasn’t good enough today. He was better than me today, that's the end of the story. Some days you don't play as well as you'd like to play. Also, when that happens, it's because your opponent is doing really well. I just want to congratulate him, that's all.
“I think that today I didn't read the ball well enough to be able to handle the situation, to put him into places where he didn't feel comfortable. I was not good enough with my forehand or my backhand to open up to his forehand.”
Thiem, this year’s Argentina Open titlist (d. Bedene), recorded his 24th match win of the year in one hour and 56 minutes. Nadal, who had been bidding to record his 50th match win in Madrid, is now 18-2 in 2018, which includes 11th titles at both Monte-Carlo (d. Nishikori) and the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell (d. Tsitsipas).