Heavy-Hitting Respect: The Nadal-Thiem Rivalry
Few players are able to match the physicality Rafael Nadal brings to the court, forget about exceeding it. But, when Dominic Thiem is at his best, the Austrian has been able to do just that, creating a captivating ATP Head2Head rivalry.
“A player like Dominic has a lot of potential,” Nadal said after losing against Thiem at the 2018 Mutua Madrid Open. “Whenever he plays really well, it's very difficult to stop him.”
When both men's games are clicking simultaneously, fans are in for jaw-dropping tennis, as the stars unleash massive groundstrokes at one another without hesitation. Nadal leads Thiem 9-5 in their series.
“If you want to have a chance against him, one of the all-time greats, everything needs to work in your game,” Thiem said after beating Nadal in this year’s Australian Open quarter-finals.
Thiem has impressed with his performance against Nadal on clay over the years. The Austrian beat the Spaniard once a year from 2016-19.
Watch Highlights: Thiem's Last Clay Win vs. Nadal
“I'm always super proud if I beat him, because he's the best player ever on this surface,” Thiem said. “It's always very special to beat him... on clay.”
Nadal, however, has maintained his throne at Roland Garros. The 19-time Grand Slam champion has beaten Thiem in the Paris final in each of the past two years, doing so in straight sets in 2018 and four sets in 2019. Nadal has admitted it hasn’t been easy against the Austrian, against whom he feels under pressure when Thiem is able to take control of rallies early.
“He [was] the most difficult opponent,” Nadal said after last year’s championship. “[This] has been the most difficult match.”
The most memorable clash of the pair’s 14 previous meetings came in the quarter-finals of the 2018 US Open. Nadal battled past Thiem 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7(4), 7-6(5) in an epic four-hour, 49-minute marathon that ended at 2:04 a.m.
Thiem delivered an onslaught of 74 winners and won the first 6-0 set against Nadal at the US Open in 14 years (Andy Roddick, 2004). But Nadal scratched and clawed, triumphing despite winning six fewer points. Thiem was close that evening in Flushing Meadows, but not close enough.
“It’s going to be stuck in my mind forever,” Thiem said. “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.
Nadal is more than seven years older than Thiem, so they are from different generations. But the Spaniard has great respect for how the 26-year-old carries himself on and off the court.
“He played great matches against me in the past, too. He played great-quality tennis. I think we like each other in terms of character. I like his attitude,” Nadal said in Melbourne this year, before cracking a smile. “Probably he likes mine, too.”