Yesterday I clicked the button to start drafting up a new blog post. My random mind had already chosen a title that I thought was rather cliche. The King vs The Prince. I started typing away about how Dominic Thiem’s final match up with Rafael Nadal could be a potential passing of the baton. The usual tennis writer’s spew when it comes to generational contests. Somewhere along the line, I deleted that draft and as such, it never made its way on the internet.
Hold on, Kelechi. I thought. This is Rafa we’re talking about. It is much too soon.
After today’s final, I think I made the safer bet and the correct one. It was much too soon. For all the praise that Dominic Thiem gets for his clay court prowess, Nadal is and always has been a caliber of dirt devil all to his own. There’s a reason why he was going for his TENTH championship in Barcelona, barely a week after capturing his TENTH in Monte Carlo. Yes I had to type “tenth” in bold. The more I thought about it, the more ridiculous it sounded and yet, it is true.
Those reasons were on full display again today. Rafael Nadal has been stuck in a wilderness of his own since winning his last grand slam at – surprise – Roland Garros in 2014. A confidence drop here, some injuries there, a lack of form that way, and suddenly tennis’s fiercest competitor was almost becoming tour fodder. That and the grand slam where he was regarded as nigh invisible, was turning into a place of much grief. He’d been bested by Djokovic in 2015 and again by his body (his wrist) in 2016. During that period, Dominic Thiem was beginning to make a name for himself as the dirt devil heir apparent. Of course it was easy to be lulled into writing something along those lines.
Yet here was Nadal, covering the court like a gazelle, ritualistic tics in hand to boot. Here was Nadal, spiking dangerous high hopping topspin loaded forehands to his challenger’s backhand and setting up the open court. Here was Nadal, defending like a mad man on steroids and making gets that shriek pure will power and somehow feel like a calculated attempt to break a hapless opponent’s spirit. Here was the king of clay, vanquishing yet another challenger, just like old times.
Dominic Thiem for his part, did contribute to a rather entertaining first set. Whether it was a tactical choice or a disillusioned belief that he could grapple toe to toe with history’s greatest clay court player, Thiem traded topspin bombs with Nadal from the baseline. From the get go, it looked like a bad idea. Thiem was holding serve, but it was clear from a few narrow misses, that he lacked the consistency of his more accomplished opponent. Nadal’s ritualistic tics do not stop at arranging bottles just so, lining his socks and cleaning the baseline of dust before every return game. That maddening consistency more than seeps into his game. When he is in form, his ground strokes can take on the nature of a never ending metronome. On this surface, not even tennis players the likes of Federer and Djokovic can withstand that for more than two sets. Thiem, cracked at 4 all in the first set. The mental and physical concentration required to continually fend off topspin assaults that never seem to miss, was too much for him to give and he was broken for the game, the set and essentially the match.
In the second set, a broken Thiem would win just one game and soon those narrow misses became increasingly wider until the Austrian, gassed out, was spraying balls way off the court. It was a familiar sight and one had to wonder how Thiem thought he could go up against this clay court predator at his own game, and survive. This is a man who bites his trophies. With his teeth literally sunk deep into the match, the games rolled on to their inevitable end and Nadal had his second tenth title, in as many weeks.
As for Thiem, there’s still a lot of clay court matches to be played, leading up to the French Open. A loss to Nadal is nothing to be ashamed about, but if he is looking to make a statement at the French, he might be wise to remember that Nadal is chasing another tenth there.
Any bets the Spaniard won’t get it? At this point, it is much too soon to christen anybody else a favorite.