With summer on the periphery, there are three things that will happen when the weather heats up. First, half the world will spend much of their time in a pool or body of water. Second, barbecues will be thrown. And third, Rafael Nadal will be holding the Coupe des Mousquetaires Trophy at the end of the French Open.
That much is a given. The man from Mallorca, Spain has practically been a shoo-in to win the second major of the season every time he enters the clay court event. Fourteen times Nadal has played in his favorite tournament and he’s left the winner a Grand Slam era-record 11 times, with an 86-2 mark. Mind-boggling in its own right is that he’s 11-0 in finals, having never lost a final at center court. Heading into the French Open next week, the No. 2 ranked player in the world will be the favorite once again.
Although, Nadal might be expected to win, I don’t believe he is the heavy favorite as the last two years. I say that not because he’s had a bit of a drought during this European clay court season by his standards before winning the Italian Open last week, but because the world’s No. 4 ranked Dominic Thiem stands as an obstacle. The young gun has all the goodies in his bag to usurp the King of Clay from his thrown.
The 25-year-old from Austria has carved his name into the list of top players in the men’s game the last few years, but it’s been on the red clay where he’s secured that status. Thiem introduced himself to the tennis world in 2016, where he reached his first Grand Slam semifinal at the French Open as the 13th seed, but fell to the eventual champion Novak Djokovic. He made the semifinals once again in 2017 (losing to Nadal) and the finals a year ago (fell to Nadal again).
Even after losing in last year's final,1995 French Open champion and former clay-court specialist Thomas Muster, believed that Thiem was next in line to rule the clay surface in the future. "If you take the clay-court world ranking, considering, we never know, that Nadal isn't there in a few years, Dominic is above others and will become one of the most serious candidates for the title," said Muster.
However, the full scope of Thiem’s maturation process and development in his overall game has been evident this season. He won his first Masters 1000 tournament at Indian Wells and followed up with a title on clay at the Barcelona Open. Both wins make me believe he’s ready to go a step further.
Being known as the "King" of anything is a distinction that most aren't entitled to. With Nadal being labeled as the master performer on the toughest surface in all of tennis for over a decade, he has lifted his statue and profile beyond even tennis. While Nadal is a tremendous all-surface player, it's on the clay where the sports world closely associates him with.
I think Thiem could someday reach that level.
Djokovic has proven to be the main combatant to Nadal on the slow and high-bouncing surface, and possesses the experience and know-how to topple him in Paris this year. However, Thiem offers up the sort of game that can not only withstand Nadal’s biggest punches, but can also counter with his own substantial blows to victory.
What’s been Nadal’s bread-and-butter are his patented high balls and idiosyncratic topspin from both his forehand and backhand side. They force opponents into careless unforced errors and short balls, most effectively with players who use a one-handed backhand. Even if your able to keep the ball in play, it will usually be a ball lacking depth, which Nadal will pounce on for an easy winner.
Thiem, on the other hand, can provide a counter because not only does he hold a one-handed backhand that he hits deep, but he can also control points on his backhand side and return well against Nadal, unlike most players.
One of the reasons why the great Roger Federer has had such difficulties versus Nadal on clay is because his one-handed backhand gets broken down throughout the course of a match against Nadal’s twisting forehand and shred tactics.
Thiem's upper-body strength helps nullify Nadal’s spin because his heavy, powerful forehands push Nadal back. The tenacious ball-striker has shown that blow-for-blow, he can hold his own in baseline rallies, movement (which can be tricky on clay) and long, exhausting physical games, which Nadal generally outwills opponents. Thiem's kick serve is also a steady weapon for him.
In head-to-head matches, Nadal is 8-4 versus Thiem with seven wins coming on clay. Yet, nine of Thiem’s 13 career titles are on clay and he’s beaten Nadal at least once on the surface in the last four years. No other player can make that claim. Only Djokovic (seven wins) has had more success on the red stuff.
The major hurdle for Thiem against Nadal will be defeating him in a best-of-five format – which is the setup at the French Open – an entirely different task than beating him in a best-of-three contest. However, a win at Roland Garros might be a sign Dominic Thiem could be the new successor to Nadal on clay.