Rafael Nadal & Dominic Thiem: The Rivalry
Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem faced off for the first time at Roland Garros in 2014. Five years later, one of the greatest clay-court rivalries of this decade will add a new chapter on Sunday when they meet again here for the title.
Nadal leads Thiem 8-4 in their FedEx ATP Head2Head series, which has seen all but one match played on clay. Their rivalry isn’t as one-sided as the numbers may suggest, though. All four of Thiem’s wins have come on clay and he’s beaten Nadal once in each of the past four years. The 25-year-old is the only player to defeat Nadal on clay more than once in that time.
Thiem won their most recent clash this year in the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell semi-finals. His 6-4, 6-4 victory marked the first time that three-time defending champion Nadal lost in the semi-finals or final of his home tournament. The Austrian joined Novak Djokovic as the only players to defeat Nadal on clay four times.
But defeating the Spaniard at Roland Garros is a far different task. The 11-time champion has won all three of his meetings with Thiem at the second major of the year, prevailing in the 2018 final, 2017 semi-finals and the second round in 2014. Nadal won all nine sets they’ve played here and dropped an average of eight games per match.
The first set will be pivotal in Sunday’s championship. Ten of their 12 matches have been decided in straight sets. Only once has the player who lost the opening set fought back to prevail.
That took place in last year’s US Open quarter-finals, which saw Nadal survive an epic battle 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7(4), 7-6(5). Thiem hammered 74 winners and won more points than Nadal (171 to 165), but as the clock passed 2:00 am, Nadal dug deep to move through in four hours and 49 minutes.
“It’s going to be stuck in my mind forever,” said Thiem after the match. “I'm going to remember this match, for sure. Tennis is cruel sometimes, because I think this match didn't really deserve a loser. But there has to be one.”
Their only other clash to go the distance took place in the 2016 Argentina Open semi-finals. Thiem bravely saved a match point in the deciding set before advancing 6-4, 4-6, 7-6(4). The victory was Thiem’s second against a Top 10 player.
The Austrian is a much different player compared to that meeting three years ago, but so is Nadal. Both men have consistently raised their levels during the clay-court season and will need to reach even greater heights if they wish to be the last man standing in Paris.