“Changing of the guard” and “end of an era” are two of the sportswriter’s more easily abused clichés. It’s always tempting, when watching a match between two great players of different ages, to try to inject some historical importance into what might in reality be a run-of-the-mill encounter that will be forgotten by the end of the week. There’s nothing more dramatic in sports than the idea of watching the past give way to the future over the course of a single afternoon. Unfortunately, there’s also nothing more rare.

So far in 2016, with its mix of aging legends and talented young guns, the men’s game has offered plenty of opportunities for fans and journalists to build up a clash-of-the-generations narrative. Two of those narratives have involved the ATP’s foremost insurgent, 22-year-old Dominic Thiem, and neither of them felt run of the mill. In Feburary, the power-hitting Austrian saved a match point with a forehand winner to beat Rafael Nadal on clay in Buenos Aires. The next month, he earned 14 break points but couldn't quite find a way to capitalize against Novak Djokovic in Miami.

On Thursday, Thiem stepped onto the clay in Monte Carlo for his own personal early-season rubber match against the Big Four generation. On the other side of the net was Nadal, an eight-time champion at this event. Many, including this writer, have touted Thiem as a future French Open champion. Not only does he have the victory over Rafa on dirt this season, but four of his five career titles have come on the surface. As for his ball-striking skills, there can be no doubt. Thiem, who came into this match with a 26-6 record on the season, can throw down 130-m.p.h serves and 100-m.p.h. forehands and still have people walk away thinking that his laser-whip one-handed backhand is his most impressive shot. For him, the spectacular comes naturally.


If anything, Thiem was more spectacular than he’s ever been through the first 80 minutes against Nadal. That’s how long it took to complete the first set, which was the best that I’ve seen in any match in 2016. Thiem kick served Nadal nearly into the bleachers, hit leaping backhand winners to both corners, pummeled forehands past Rafa from just about anywhere he liked and snapped a crosscourt pass that made even Nadal's shoulders slump. More impressive than Thiem’s onslaught, though, was his patience and grit. He hung with Nadal from the baseline and succeeded at what few have dared to try: beating him at his own clay game.

Or, I should say, almost beating him. In a set. As brilliant as Thiem was, this match would end up looking more like his loss to Djokovic in Miami than it would his win over Nadal in Buenos Aires. The pattern was set in the third game. Thiem, swinging freely, ran out to a 0-40 lead on Rafa's serve. From there, Thiem played more safely and gave the lead back. That’s how the rest of the first set went. Thiem would create 16 break chances; he would convert just one.

The ninth game was the decider. Thiem again played with flash and daring, and reached break point six times. But Nadal, despite appearing to be overmatched by his younger opponent’s pace, always found a way to answer. He saved one break point with a volley winner, another with a service winner, another with a series of strong backhands and the last one with a terrific backhand topspin lob from his shoe-tops that landed an inch inside the baseline. These days, it seems that Rafa’s backhand, rather than his forehand, has become his sturdier baseline wing, and it saved him on Thursday.


Holding Onto the Throne

Holding Onto the Throne

By the time the game reached the 15-minute mark, you had the feeling that the loser was never going to recover. And that’s what happened: At 4-5, Thiem double-faulted to hand the set to Nadal, and he eventually lost, 7-5, 6-3, in two hours and three minutes. Thiem may not be ready to beat the Big Four in a Masters event just yet, but he’s ready to lose to them in matches that are much tougher than the scores indicate.

Was this a meaningful clash of the generations? It ended up reminding me of two previous Nadal wins in Monte Carlo.

At first, I found myself flashing back to a teenage Rafa defeating Guillermo Coria in the 2005 final. In that hard-fought four-setter, you could see one King of Clay overtaking another. On Thursday, in certain moments, Thiem appeared to be playing the role of Rafa the young conqueror of '05, the kid destined to take over the clay game.

By the middle of the second set, though, the match had begun to call to mind Nadal’s much less consequential win over Grigor Dimitrov in Monte Carlo in 2013. Like Thiem, Dimitrov, who was a month shy of his 22nd birthday, had been the flashy player of the future. He had been the one hitting 100-m.p.h. forehands and one-handed-backhand winners. He had been the one to push Rafa to the limit before losing 6-4 in the third set. But despite the excitement that Dimitrov generated that day, no torch was passed. In the three years since, Dimitrov has receded from the stage.


Thiem’s game can resemble Dimitrov's. The Austrian has bigger weapons and seemingly a better head, but like Dimitrov, he doesn’t win with grinding physicality the way Nadal, Djokovic and even Andy Murray do. We can only wait and see if that holds him back, or if his shot-making is simply too unstoppable for it to matter.

If there was a lesson Thiem could take from Nadal on Thursday, it came in that crucial ninth game. Thiem had the more lethal strokes, but Nadal had the stronger will. Again and again, despite being under an overwhelming ground-stroke assault, Rafa refused to give a psychological inch. On dirt, Nadal proved again that willpower can still trump swing power.

The guard will change and the Big Four era will end, but it’s going to be a while before any young gun fills Rafa's clay shoes.