QF Preview: Is Another Nadal-Thiem Grand Slam Epic In Store In Melbourne?
It’s going to be stuck in my mind forever.
The last time Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem played one another on hard court, they produced one of the most memorable Grand Slam matches of recent memory. In the 2018 US Open quarter-finals, both men ripped the cover off the ball for four hours and 49 minutes, with Nadal ultimately triumphing in a fifth-set tie-break. Thiem was left heartbroken to say the least.
The Austrian, who has split two matches against Nadal on clay since then, will try to erase those Flushing Meadows memories when he pursues an upset of the top seed on Rod Laver Arena in Wednesday’s Australian Open quarter-finals. Nadal will look to stop the big-hitting World No. 5 as he continues his chase for a 20th Grand Slam title, which would tie Roger Federer’s record.
“[I expect a] very tough match. He's playing well. I saw him play [Monday] against Gael [Monfils]. He was playing a very high level [of] tennis,” Nadal said. “We know each other well. He's a player who I like a lot, the way that he works, the way that he plays, and the way that he tries his best always. It’s a match that is going to be a tough one, but it will be interesting.”
Nadal showed he is in top form on Monday evening when he dispatched motivated Aussie Nick Kyrgios in four sets. But it won’t get any easier against Thiem, who triumphed at last year’s BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells and reached the championship match of the Nitto ATP Finals. Both of those events are held on hard court.
Early in his career, Thiem was known to enjoy his best results on clay. But the Austrian adapted his physical game to hard courts in 2019, and has himself shown a high level at Melbourne Park ahead of what promises to be a massive showdown. Nadal expects nothing less.
“I am excited to play this quarter-final against Dominic,” Nadal said. “I know I have to be at my best to have chances. I think I am moving in the right direction. Every day I'm playing a little bit better.”
Thiem, who will compete in his first Australian Open quarter-final, has himself improved match by match. In the second round, he was forced to rally from two sets to one down against Aussie wild card Alex Bolt. And since then, he has beaten No. 29 seed Taylor Fritz in four sets and No. 10 seed Gael Monfils in straight sets.
“Already yesterday in practice and today [during] the warm-up, I had a great feeling of the strokes, was feeling physically very good, and also the way the match went with the early break in all three sets, almost everything went in my direction,” Thiem said after his one-sided triumph against Monfils. “I played a very, very good match today from the beginning to the end, and that's why it's easy to say that it was by far the best from this Australian Open yet.”
Nadal leads their ATP Head2Head rivalry 9-4, but the Spaniard’s five-set epic against Thiem at the 2018 US Open should prove the best roadmap for what their match in Melbourne will look like, since it was their only hard-court meeting. The Austrian showed no hesitation in New York, taking massive swings at the ball from behind the baseline, or stepping in to launch lasers off balls he took on the rise.
It’s not often that Nadal metaphorically gets punched in the mouth, but that’s exactly what the ultra-aggressive Thiem did in that match in taking the first set 6-0. It was just the second time Nadal had lost a set 0-6 at the US Open (Andy Roddick, 2004). But the lefty was relentless in his determination. He won only 165 points to Thiem’s 171, but it was enough, as he emerged with a win.
“I played against a great opponent. He played a good match. Sorry for him. He's a top guy, being honest. He's one of the best guys on Tour,” Nadal said at the time. “Sad for him because when this moment arrived, he did all the things well to win the match. Me, too, I think. I fought until the end. [It] was a question of little bit of luck at the end, and [it] was for me.”
Nadal clearly holds the experience advantage at the Australian Open, competing in his 12th quarter-final at the event. Thiem owns just 14 match wins in Melbourne. But that won’t stop the Austrian from cranking up his big strokes once again to leave everything he has on Rod Laver Arena to try to beat Nadal at a major for the first time (0-5).
“It’s cruel sometimes, tennis,” Thiem said after his US Open loss. “I think this match didn't really deserve a loser. But there has to be one.”
Wednesday’s quarter-final promises to be a titanic clash, but only Nadal or Thiem will advance to the last four Down Under.