Thiem finally cracks the Rafa code, ends Nadal's 17-match win streak

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Each professional tennis match is self-contained, an individual illuminant in the sports’ season-long Lite-Brite. But when three of those matches feature the same two players on the same playing surface and take place over the course of three weeks, one of sports’ maxims comes into play: It’s hard to beat someone three times in a row.

Although the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers have bucked that trend so far in the NBA playoffs, Rafael Nadal could not on Friday in Rome. There, he took his first loss of the clay season to Dominic Thiem after previously defeating the talented 23-year-old in both the Barcelona and Madrid finals. On Friday, Thiem turned the tables with an impressive 6-4, 6-3 quarterfinal triumph that cements his place as one of the top threats at Roland Garros—where we could very likely see these two meet again.

While Thiem’s penetrating one-handed backhand is lauded for its look and effectiveness, his forehand made the difference on Friday. He used the powerful shot, which at one point on Friday was clocked at over 100 m.p.h., to move Nadal around the court, much like the Spaniard’s custom.

Thiem also took a page out of Stan Wawrinka’s book, clocking his forehand whenever given the opportunity. It didn’t always work, and like the former Roland Garros champion, Thiem walked a tightrope with his red-lining approach. But it was the only way to disrupt an in-form Nadal, unbeaten on clay this year prior to Friday. Nadal lost more sets on Friday than he did in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid combined.

It’s not as if Nadal looked weary from all the tennis he’s played of late, though he’d do well to take the positives from Friday’s defeat—he’ll have more rest for Roland Garros. This was simply a dominating performance from Dominic, who raced to a 5-1 first-set lead. When he lost his insurance break, all bets were off, especially considering their recent history. But Thiem—who beat Nadal on clay last year in Buenos Aires—showed the requisite mental strength to push through.

Thiem’s mettle was tested again in the second set, and again from an advantageous position. The Austrian took a 4-3 lead with an open-court forehand winner, but faced three break points in the pivotal “back it up” game. Thiem went on to display the most impressive tennis of the day, winning the pressure points with his forehand and with an unreturned first serve. Even on slow clay, a first delivery is critical, and Thiem showed that at the Foro Italico. He consolidated, and Nadal capitulated in the very next game.

It was a big backhand that ended this match—Nadal couldn’t keep his reply to Thiem’s signature shot in play—but the youngster’s all-around game was the biggest takeaway. What’s next for Thiem? Before we get to Roland Garros, let’s stay in Italy, where Thiem will face Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. It will be a tall task, but Friday’s win should instill further confidence in one of the game’s clay-court experts.

It’s a great opportunity for Thiem, and perhaps a precursor to something even greater.

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