“Can anyone take a set from Rafael Nadal on clay?” That was the question the tennis world has been asking for the last month. The response was starting to look like it might be “no.”
During that time, the Spaniard won his record 11th titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, and pushed his consecutive-set streak on the surface to 50. It seemed that Rafa at 31 was only leaving the rest of the ATP field farther behind on clay—making them, you might say, eat more of his red dirt than ever.
On Friday, though, we finally got a definitive answer—two of them, in fact. The player who could take a set from Nadal turned out to be the same man who had last accomplished that feat, in Rome 12 months ago. In Madrid, Dominic Thiem had to serve for the first set twice, at 5-4 and 6-5, but he closed it out with an ace. Then he went ahead and won the second set, 6-3, to end Rafa’s 21-match win streak on clay and topple him from the No. 1 ranking.
Match point from Thiem's win over Nadal in the Madrid quarterfinals:
“It was the best match since a very long time for me,” said Thiem, who had endured a mediocre patch of play this spring. The 2017 Roland Garros semifinalist had seemingly lost his touch on his favorite surface. In Monte Carlo, Nadal had routed him 6-0, 6-2, and in Barcelona 19-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas had dismissed him 6-3, 6-2. Thiem hadn’t looked much better in his back-from-the-brink win over Borna Coric in the round of 16 in Madrid.
Sometimes surviving a close one helps you loosen up, though, and Thiem played with maximum freedom against Nadal. He moved forward, took the ball earlier than he had in Monte Carlo, dictated the rallies with his forehand, and didn’t let Rafa push him around on the backhand side. Thiem played straight-ahead, meat-and-potatoes, power-baseline tennis, and Nadal never found an answer for it.
“I love it here in Madrid, perfect conditions for me,” said Thiem of the Caja Magica’s quicker courts and higher altitude. In the final here last year, he and Nadal played one of the best two-set matches of the season; this time Thiem, playing mostly nerveless tennis, was even better.
“If I play normal against him, I lose probably,” Thiem said. “I have to play some special shots. I played today some more forehands down the line. I played a little more aggressive, and it worked out very, very well, obviously.”
“[My shots] were more aggressive, but also safe today, and that was the difference.”
The other difference, of course, was Nadal’s level of play. Rafa said he didn’t have the “right sensations” when he was hitting the ball—he had no feel. His serve wasn’t clicking, and he was predictable with its location. He missed regulation forehands and backhands he normally wouldn’t miss; Rafa has always had a little more trouble in the Madrid altitude because of the amount of air he puts under the ball, and it was sailing on him again today. And when the important rallies arrived, he couldn’t grab control of them.
Nadal’s 50-set streak on clay, which is the men’s record for a single surface, was remarkable, but Rafa’s own history said it had to come to an end. While he has dominated virtually every clay season for the last 13 years, he typically does lose one match in the spring, before closing with a title at the tournament that matters, in Paris. Next week he’s scheduled to face Thiem again in the quarters in Rome; that match, if it happens, will tell us a lot.
Or will it? Last year, Rafa lost to Thiem in Rome, before beating him in straight sets in the semis at the French Open. Can we expect a similar pattern in 2018, or does Thiem now pose a real threat to what had appeared to be another romp at Roland Garros for Rafa? Will a win in Madrid help make Thiem a winner in Paris?
Nadal’s 75-2 record at Roland Garros should be enough to offer an early answer to that question: Probably not.