MELBOURNE – There had been dozens of tests for Dominic Thiem all evening inside Rod Laver Arena as he tried to win this grueling quarterfinal versus Rafael Nadal. He had led two sets to love and been taken into a fourth. He had served for the match and lost that game, rather poorly at that. He had held two match points in the tiebreaker and lost them both, the first on a sloppy miss, the second on a successful Nadal challenge.
Now came another test that was going to either swiftly end the exam or extend it into root canal-like agony. It was five minutes short of midnight. Nadal served at 6-all in the tiebreaker. Who dared believe Nadal wasn’t going to bring on the fifth? Jumping promptly on Thiem’s short return, in charged Nadal, lacing his forehand crosscourt, sprinting to the net.
Thiem rocketed a crosscourt backhand passing shot. He’d earned his third match point. Nadal, likely stunned, on the next point did something he rarely does, lining a forehand into the net. In four hours and ten minutes, Thiem had won 7-6 (3), 7-6 (4), 4-6, 7-6 (6). “He's playing great,” said Nadal. “He's playing with a lot of energy, aggressive, determination. So well done for him.”
For the first time in his career, Thiem had reached the semis of a major not played on clay. It had also been his first win over Nadal on a hard court. “I'm really proud of how I stayed in the match after a very tough situation when I served for it, 5-4 in the fourth set,” said Thiem. “I really threw away that game with pretty stupid mistakes.
Roger Federer has beaten Nadal with variety. Novak Djokovic has beaten him with consistency. But few have ever beaten Nadal with as much raw physicality as Thiem displayed this evening. This is what the matchup called for. Come up against Federer and you become witness to a clinical dissection. Arrive at Djokovic’s office and get clinically smothered. Enter the arena versus Nadal and you must simply compete, raw, dirty and sweaty. “If you want to have a chance against him, one of the all-time greats, everything needs to work in your game,” said Thiem.
But Thiem too has so much of what Nadal has brought to the tennis—fitness, movement to all corners, lashing strokes, squeezed, dried and packaged into one lean and mean contender. “I think we like each other in terms of character,” said Nadal. “I like his attitude. Probably he likes mine, too.”
Rare for anyone versus Nadal, Thiem had won the first two sets from challenging positions. Serving at 3-4 in the first, he was broken at love, Nadal seizing the break with a backhand topspin lob that kissed the baseline. Nadal served at 30-30 and cracked an ace wide to the Thiem forehand to earn a set point.
But Thiem countered strongly, his effort this evening sparked not just by his cult-inspiring backhand (12 winners), but also by a profoundly severe, heavy forehand that repeatedly found the lines (26 winners). Granted a reprieve, Thiem bounced forward, Nadal sagged just slightly and soon it was the Austrian who tore his way through the tiebreaker, 7-3.
A similar pattern took place in the second set. Nadal served at 4-3 and in that game witnessed two Thiem forehand winners. More demoralizing, Nadal became the participant at 15-40 when he surrendered his break with a double-fault. Thiem served in the tiebreaker and again proved more assertive, in many rallies setting himself up on or inside the baseline while pinning Nadal far behind it. At 4-5, Nadal hit a poor drop shot, giving Thiem the chance to crack a winner and reach set point. Thiem cashed it in, aided by a return of his own that just dribbled over the net and left Nadal a sitting duck for a blistering forehand passing shot. It had taken two hours and 16 minutes to play the first two sets.
Crowd sentiment was split. Early on, a cry came from the north end. “Let’s go, Rafa, let’s go.” Immediately came one from the south end. “Let’s go, Dominic, let’s go.” Ten minutes later, another. “Come on, boys.” These two indeed are precisely the kind of sportsmen Australians cherish: fit, focused, well-behaved – and willing to leave blood on the court.
Thiem next plays Alexander Zverev, a man he has beaten six times in eight matches. “We have no secrets from each other, said Thiem. “We played so many times, also on very special occasions already . . . .It's a nice rivalry we have.”
“I honestly didn't play a bad match,” said Nadal. “My attitude was great, I think, during the whole match. Good, positive, fighting spirit all the time, giving me more chances.” Tonight though, Thiem made the best of those that came his way.