Courier: 'Thiem Needs To Do Something Extraordinary'
Rafael Nadal is to Roland Garros titles as water is to wet. So former World No. 1 Jim Courier, the 1991 and 1992 champion, believes that fourth seed Dominic Thiem will need to produce a special performance Sunday if he is to upset 11-time titles Rafael Nadal and lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires.
“He’s going to have to play a nearly flawless match because the next time you see Nadal play a bad match at Roland Garros will be the first time,” Courier told ATPTour.com.
Nadal is an astonishing 117-2 in best-of-five matches on clay, and 92-2 at Roland Garros. So the onus is on Thiem to find solutions to the questions Nadal asks on the terre battue rather than the Spaniard needing to do anything different than he has since earning his first title at this event in 2005.
“Unless Dominic is doing something that gets him out of his patterns, which would be hitting the hard backhand crosscourt into Nadal’s forehand, it’s just [Rafa] playing into his patterns and forcing Dominic to do something that’s uncomfortable for him,” Courier said. “If Nadal plays his normal patterns on clay, best of five, it’s been proven that he’s virtually unbeatable. And that will hold tomorrow unless Thiem does something extraordinary.”
Nadal has lost twice at Roland Garros, though, and Thiem has defeated the Spaniard once in each of the past four years on clay. So it’s a matter of the Austrian bringing what he’s learned from his victories to Court Philippe Chatrier against a man who has dominated on that court. Courier points to how World No. 1 Novak Djokovic has played Nadal in the past, including in a straight-sets victory against the lefty at Roland Garros in 2015.
“Thiem’s going to need to take away Rafa’s patterns, so he’s going to need to replicate what Novak does so well against Rafa and stand in in the backhand corner, take the ball early, go hard crosscourt to move Nadal out of the centre of the court and then attack with the forehand from there,” Courier said. “That’s his best chance in the rallies to make damage. Novak has really written the playbook on how to play Rafa if you have a certain skill to take on his forehand.”
Watch Highlights Of Thiem & Nadal's Most Recent Match (Barcelona 2019)
Thiem is well-known for the onslaught of heavy groundstrokes he sends towards his opponents from the baseline. While Djokovic neutralises Nadal’s crosscourt forehand with his two-handed backhand, though, Thiem uses a one-handed backhand. He will need to rely on remaining on the baseline or inside the court with that shot, in a way like Federer did during his recent five-match winning streak against Nadal before falling to the Spaniard in the semi-finals here.
“He won’t be able to run around a ton of those shots with his forehand if the rallies are starting out with Rafa in control. But we saw Roger Federer from 2017 on standing in and taking his one-handed backhand hard crosscourt, using Novak’s patterns as well with great success against Rafa on hard courts,” Courier said. “He was trying to do the same thing yesterday in their match in that windstorm, but it was very difficult to take clean hits at the ball.”
Although Thiem has struggled against Nadal at Roland Garros, losing all three of their previous meetings at this tournament without getting closer than 6-4 in a set, the Austrian has defeated the World No. 2 at four separate clay-court tournaments dating back to 2016 Buenos Aires.
“It’s important, the fact that he’s beaten Rafa on clay, the fact that he’s beaten him this year in Barcelona, a tournament that’s very important to Rafa. That certainly should and I imagine will give him confidence to believe that he could go toe-to-toe with Nadal,” Courier said. “Whether that’s enough to beat him in best of five, we’ll see. Many have beaten Rafa in best of three on clay, but few have done it in best of five. But he does have the ability to do it. He knows that from a two-out-of-three standpoint. If you could win two sets, you might be able to convince yourself you can win three.”
At last year’s US Open, Thiem pushed Nadal to the brink. The Spaniard needed four hours and 49 minutes in a match that went past 2 a.m. to defeat the powerful Austrian, doing so in a final-set tie-break. And Thiem also showed his fitness against the World No. 1 Saturday when he outlasted Djokovic in five sets over two days.
“I think the experience of having played Rafa last year [in the Roland Garros final] will help him more than anything that happened today. I think certainly it was important for him to win. But for those players, the conditions they played in yesterday and today, in some respects it was a matter of survival. It was less about tennis,” Courier said. “Tomorrow, if the wind is a little bit less, which is what the forecast is for, it becomes more about the Xs and Os and executing under pressure repeatedly against Nadal’s consistent pressure. So maybe the experience he had last year where he overplayed and went for too much will help him play a little bit of a more controlled, aggressive match, if you will.”
It’s no secret that Thiem is capable of playing sensational tennis. But it’ll be about taking the positives from all of his previous successes against Nadal and doing his best to apply them Sunday in what consistently has proven to be one of the toughest tasks in sports: defeating Nadal at Roland Garros.
“You can take confidence from anything if you can convince yourself to do it or if your team does,” Courier said. “It’s all about Dominic’s perspective on what things he wants to use to problem-solve Rafa going into a match where statistically his probability of winning is very low.”