In a rematch of one of the best men’s Grand Slam matches of recent years, world no. 1 Rafael Nadal faces fifth seed Dominic Thiem in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open on Wednesday. Are we in for another epic?
Nadal vs Thiem is live from Melbourne on Wednesday 29 January at 7.30pm local/8.30am GMT
Nadal and Thiem have played 13 times before, including twice in the final of the French Open in 2018-19. But 12 of those 13 matches have come on clay. They have met just once on hard courts – and it was possibly their most memorable encounter, a late-night, five-set duel in the quarterfinals of the US Open in 2018. In a match which multiple outlets named one of their best of the decade, which lasted four hours and 49 minutes and finished past 2am local time, Nadal won 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7(4), 7-6(5).
Anyone who remembers that match will be eagerly anticipating a hard-court rematch – particularly because Thiem has made himself so much more of a force on hard courts. In retrospect, that match served as early warning for a 2019 season which saw him win the Indian Wells Masters and 500-level titles in Beijing and Vienna and reach the final of the Nitto ATP Finals, a tournament where he’d barely won a match in previous appearances.
Nadal, of course, did go on to retire in the next round of that US Open after a set and a half against Juan Martin del Potro, and it’s an open question as to whether Thiem was able to push him so hard because Nadal wasn’t physically 100%, or whether Thiem pushed him so hard that he had to retire in the next round. But he didn’t play again in 2018.
There was a fair amount of discussion of the world no. 1’s physical fitness and energy levels coming into this tournament, with Nadal having had such a late finish to the 2019 season as he led Spain to the Davis Cup Finals title in late November, and then such an early start to 2020 as he once again suited up for Spain at the ATP Cup barely seven weeks later. Nadal did seem to be feeling the strain at the ATP Cup, particularly in straight-sets defeats to David Goffin and Novak Djokovic. Have there been signs that he might be feeling his heavy workload at the Australian Open?
It’s possible: Nadal didn’t drop a set in the first three rounds, but he also really did not face the toughest opposition. Still, with the exception of an unusually low break-point conversion rate against Federico Delbonis in the second round (just three of 20), he’s been very good so far – and he was stellar against Nick Kyrgios on Monday night. He played two poor service games, one to be broken midway through the second set after failing to convert multiple break chances in Kyrgios’s opening service game of the set, and one when serving for the match; perhaps a sign of mental fatigue from a player who is usually so good at pressing his advantage. But honestly, it’s difficult to fault Nadal’s performance when he managed to beat a player who, after the first set, delivered so much great serving and great shotmaking, and to do so in four sets, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6(6), 7-6(4).
Thiem will, of course, be a totally different type of challenge to Kyrgios. The Austrian is often compared to Stan Wawrinka, and one can see why: He plays muscular baseline tennis, and that’s how he pushed Nadal to five sets in that US Open encounter, either dropping back to wind up those huge swings of his or stepping up to the baseline. Either way, it was hammered power off both wings aimed directly at Nadal, and it very nearly worked.
Thiem didn’t really cover himself with glory at the ATP Cup, going 1-2 with defeats to Borna Coric and Hubert Hurkacz, and being dragged to five sets by wildcard Alex Bolt in the second round and dropping a set to Taylor Fritz in the third didn’t really bode well, either. But Thiem did lift his level to record a 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 win over Gael Monfils in the fourth round, playing by far his best match of the tournament against another baseliner. Monfils did physically struggle to keep up by midway through the second set, which is a kind of leeway that Thiem may or may not get against Nadal – certainly not without working very hard for it.
It would be disappointing if Thiem, who has seemed to come into his own so much over the past year, could not manage to push Nadal, especially because he knows he can do it. The slow conditions in Melbourne at the moment, especially in the cooler evenings, do, perhaps, suit him. It seems like a good moment for the Austrian to extend Nadal to four or five sets, even if he can’t quite beat him. Anything else would be a letdown.