PARIS—A twenty-year old kid full of sass and attitude walks into a bar. He sees the mechanical bull and thinks, “I can ride that sucker!” He puts his dollar into the slot, hops on, and in four seconds he’s lying in the sawdust flat on his back, blinking at the ceiling, wondering, “What happened?’
In tennis, Rafael Nadal is that mechanical bull (if you don’t believe me, check out his Nike logo), at least for the rare youngster who has the talent and confidence to hop on and see what the bull’s got.
The latest rowdy to take a crack at riding that bull is Dominic Thiem, a gifted Austrian who at age 20 was the youngest man in the second round here at Roland Garros. Thiem had never faced Nadal before, but then he hasn’t faced many people on a Grand Slam stage; this is just his second major. At this year’s Australian Open, he won four matches, three in qualifying.
Thiem was beaten by Nadal in fairly short order today, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3. The score, though, is no indication of the quality of this match. Nadal was in excellent form, and good thing he was. Thiem already appears to be one of the handful of players who, if he can’t stay on the bull until the buzzer, is capable of staying aboard a lot longer than almost all of his peers.
I watched this match mostly to study the new kid on the block, and received a clear and comprehensive education in the first set. Lost in a pair of voluminous shorts that hung down nearly to his knees and an equally baggy yellow shirt, Thiem looked smaller than 6’1”. He’s on the thin side, but still developing. He has a scattering of pimples on his rosy skin, a firm jaw, and a matinee idol’s shock of dark hair.
More relevant, Thiem combines two of the most potent assets in the contemporary game: Ferocious racquet-head speed—freely applied on nearly every swing from the baseline—and terrific range. I haven’t seen any player with a one-handed backhand hit so many aggressive shots while on the run and drawn so far off the court. I dread to think what kind of trouble Thiem might have caused had he been able to play from closer than six or seven yards behind the baseline.
Funny thing about that—Thiem already knows that.
“Of course,” said Thiem in his post-match presser. “That’s (court position) not the only thing I need to improve, but especially against Nadal, who gives you a lot of pressure. It's not easy to come close to that baseline. I think Djokovic is the only player who does that against him. It was clear for me that I couldn't make it in my first match against him.”
Thiem pressed Nadal in an opening game that lasted all of eight minutes. In the course of one warp-speed rally, Thiem cracked an explosive backhand cross-court winner (it was a game point for Nadal, the server), and the crowd roared its approval. Just five minutes into this match, Thiem had won the hearts of all those Parisian aesthetes. It was a telling moment.
Nadal broke Thiem in the second game, but not before the youngster ended another fierce rally by moving forward to take a two-handed backhand half-volley and drop back a delicate winner.
After another Nadal hold, Thiem managed to win his first game. In that one, he won the point for 30-15 with a clever, well-disguised slice backhand to no-man’s land, a shot that caught Nadal totally by surprise. But Thiem held—less because of spectacular shotmaking than his ability to weather the savage, high-speed rallies.
By then, it was clear that Thiem is not only willing to run, he actually relishes the chance. But nobody outruns Rafa, and after a quick hold, Nadal broke Thiem again. Nadal reached set point in the next game, but Thiem saved it with a backhand drive volley placement. Then, in the next rally, Thiem unexpectedly moved up to the baseline and tagged an inside-out forehand winner. Now it was ad-out, and Thiem secured the break with another forehand winner.
It was almost as if Thiem had proven his point. Nadal then bullishly took control of the the next game and overwhelmed Thiem, who conceded the set with a double-fault.
The next two sets unfolded in similar fashion; the main themes were reinforced. Thiem has the makings of a great player. He’s already an intelligent one, so what did he learn?
“I played okay. I did a lot of rookie mistakes, but against a player like him, you always want to keep the points short. I didn't want it (having to play from so deep), but it's tough. His game, it was pretty much what I expected.”
One conspicuous shortcoming of Thiem’s spectacular one-handed backhand seemed to be his reluctance to go down the line with it—an obligatory shot these days. You can put that, too, down to the pressure Nadal applied.
“I really like my backhand down the line,” Thiem said. “But against him, it was a little bit more difficult to control.”
His overall reaction to his first meeting with Nadal struck a familiar note: “He doesn't give you anything. I was serving 130, 133 (M.P.H.), even on the line, and he brings the returns back. I think he made two mistakes on second serve, so you have to play every rally.”
Nadal was impressed by the young challenger. He detected no fear in Thiem, and expressed sympathy for the youth: “I saw him going for the points, going for the shots. It's true sometimes he make a few mistakes (Thiem made 41 unforced errors to just 19 by Nadal, but many of his misses were prodigious placement attempts). But at the same time this court is always difficult.
“It's difficult to find the positive feelings when you are not used to it. The court is so big and always the wind moves around a little bit and makes the sensation, the feeling, not perfect for the people who is not used to play on it. But in general, I think he has a lot of positive things to be a very good player.”
Nadal then suggested that Thiem could be compared to himself at 16—the age difference insignificant, according to the world No. 1, because of how much tougher it is to break through these days—and he grew almost wistful as he pondered the halcyon days of youth.
“He (Thiem) already has positive serves, a lot of power with his forehand, with his backhand. I didn't have that serve at the age of 17. I didn't have the backhand, I didn't have that power. So always is question of keep improving, make the normal evolution, be enough humble to keep practicing as hard as you did before. I am not lying, seriously.
“I have almost 28 (years). Djokovic and Andy has 27. Federer has, I don't know, 32. The new generation, new players, have to come. We not gonna be here for 10 more years. The normal thing is Dominic will be there in a short period of time, and he will have his chances to become top star and fight for these tournaments.”
Those were kind and wise words, coming from a mechanical bull.