History has proven that Rafael Nadal thrives on pressure. Surely the Spaniard is as great a competitor as tennis has ever seen. Logically, this would make such crucibles as tiebreakers even more likely to go Nadal’s way.
But as far as 2020 goes, the Nadal aura at crunch-time means little to Dominic Thiem. Tuesday in London, in a match of extremely high quality, Thiem defeated Nadal, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (4). “I think that today I played a little bit higher level than at the US Open and was maybe the best match for me since the restart of the tour,” said Thiem. “That makes me super happy.”
This was the second time in two tries the Austrian has beaten Nadal this year. Back in January, in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, Thiem snapped up a trio of tiebreakers, winning that match in four sets. “I really don't feel that he played better than me or I played better than him,” said Nadal after today’s match. “I think the match was very—well, I think both of us played at very high level. He deserves to win because he played little bit better some key moments. That's it. That's the tennis in these kind of surfaces.”
To watch Nadal construct points on surfaces other than clay reveals the breadth of his game and keen tactical mind. Indoors, where Nadal has only won one tournament (2005 Madrid), is particularly intriguing. Denied the high bounces that abet his groundstrokes and usually shred one-handed backhands such as Thiem’s, Nadal today sought to expand his attack. In the first set, he came to net 20 times, winning 14 of those points.
Through that first set, neither player faced a break point in the first 12 games. While Thiem too has had a great many of his best results on clay, his comfort on all surfaces has become rapidly apparent this year, demonstrated by runs to the finals in Melbourne and the title at the US Open. For all the time it can sometimes take Thiem to orchestrate his one-handed backhand, Thiem’s secret sauce is his disciplined footwork and ability to move up to the ball off both sides. This allows him to create proper balance and spacing for a sustained array of lacerating drives.
Given how well each player had managed his serve to this point, the tiebreaker proved exceptionally bizarre. Six of the first seven points went to the receiver. But there stood Nadal, serving at 5-2. Thiem won the next three points, then double-faulted. Surely now, serving at 6-5, Nadal would close it out. Instead, he netted a crosscourt backhand. By this stage, the server had only won two of 12 points. At 6-all, Nadal earned another set point, only to see it erased by a Thiem trademark, a 100 mph inside-out forehand winner. Thiem issued a similar shot at 7-8 to take the set. It had been 72 minutes of superb tennis, the high quality aided perhaps by each player having played so much less tennis than usual in 2020.
A frequent response to losing a first set after having so many chances is to start the second set feeling demoralized—precisely the kind of lacuna that give the winner of that opener enough time and space to crack the match wide open. But of course those notions carry little weight for Nadal. He is the poster child for this premise: Beware of the wounded bear. As anticipated, Nadal began the second set with his signature brand of urgency. At 3-all, he broke Thiem, the match now seemingly on course to go three sets.
What came in the next three games was the stuff that can make watching tennis a sublime experience. Nadal served at 4-3, 15-15, charged the net and was passed by a Thiem backhand—but not his familiar rolling topspin drive. Instead, channeling his inner Ken Rosewall, Thiem carved a sizzling, untouchable slice. On his second break point of the game, Thiem went back to basics, striking an up-the-line backhand to get back on serve.
Once Thiem held, Nadal served at 4-5. The first three points of that game saw uncharacteristically sloppy tennis from Nadal, including a netted forehand and, horror of horrors, an overhead shanked long to put him down love-40. Without a single blink, Nadal fought off all three match points, the most remarkable coming at 15-40—a wide kick serve to Thiem’s forehand, immediately followed by a teardrop of a crosscourt drop volley that trickled over the net. He would later hold after pulling out a tweener lob. “I didn't lose the match points but he saved them great,” said Thiem. “So just told myself that it's super important not lose any intensity now but to play the next game as good as possible to go up 6-5, and that's what I did.”
Again, a tiebreak. And again, Thiem found the magic, from 3-all closing out the next three points in grand style—a backhand up the line pass, an angled crosscourt backhand, a whopper of a forehand. Though Nadal fought off a fourth match point, Thiem took the fifth when Nadal misfired wide on a backhand to end it after two hours and 25 minutes.
Said Thiem, “I think we both played great tennis, and if we do so, at the end, matches like that are the outcome, and very, very small things make the difference.”
“Just well done to him,” said Nadal. “He played I think an amazing match, and I played well too. So my feeling is not negative.” This makes sense. After all, today Nadal was beaten. But as this event’s round-robin format gives players the chance to enact a rare competitive scenario straight out of James Bond: you only live twice. London hasn’t seen the last of Rafael Nadal.