Matt Zemek

Some sporting events don’t require any analysis beyond one or two sentences. We saw such an example on Friday at the Monte Carlo Country Club.

Rafael Nadal on clay is as thoroughly dominant as any athlete in any sport. That’s one sentence.

Beating Novak Djokovic and Nadal in back-to-back matches, on clay or anywhere else, is hugely difficult to do. That’s the second sentence.

The end. Nothing else needs to be said about Nadal’s easy win in the quarterfinals.

The interesting and uncertain part of this day was not the match itself, but the questions it naturally raised. Let’s tackle several understandable reactions in the aftermath of Nadal’s blowout and see what stands up under scrutiny.

The first and most important point to make is that a lot of people doubt that Nadal will play deep into his 30s. This doesn’t make the assertion true or untrue, and it’s up to Nadal to chart his own course. Roger Federer seems very likely to play through the 2020 season at the very least, which would take him through his 39th birthday. If he played at age 40 in late 2021, it would not rate as a shock, though the scenario should not be seen as guaranteed, either. Nadal might have a very different idea about how to handle the final years of his career. A wait-and-see approach is best, instead of jumping to conclusions well ahead of time.

Speculation aside, one can very simply and confidently say that if Nadal DOES want to play deep into his 30s as Federer is doing, winning matches quickly — as he has done in Monte Carlo this week — is exactly how Rafa can add more years to his tennis lifespan. Nadal, in his prime, would often take multiple hours to win straight-set matches. No player in tennis enjoyed the battle involved in the sport MORE than Rafa did in his prime. Jimmy Connors might have enjoyed the battle as much as Rafa did — the same applies to Novak Djokovic — but neither man enjoyed combat MORE than the Spaniard. The supreme patience attached to that love of exertion is a huge part of why Rafa has been so dominant on clay, the surface which demands patience more than any other.

Now, though, the reality of advancing age — Rafa will turn 32 in little over a month — requires concessions from the athletes who want to extend their careers (should they choose to do so). One such concession tennis is asking from Rafa is to shave 30 to 50 minutes off his match times, and to not relish the battle to the point of taking his sweet time finishing his predictable clay-court victories. Nadal has made that concession in Monte Carlo, and if he can keep doing so, the accumulated reduction of strain on his body could pay dividends in numerous ways — later in 2018, yes, but also over the next four years if Rafa wants to play that long. “Match management” is something to keep an eye on with Nadal at this stage of his career. Maybe he doesn’t want to play at age 36 — that’s possible. If he DOES, though, he is following the right path at the moment.

A second big reaction from this match is that in the eyes of many, Novak Djokovic has displaced Dominic Thiem as the second-best player on clay, or — to put it differently — Thiem never should have been elevated over Djokovic in the first place.

I get both sides of this discussion point. Djokovic is, of course, the far more accomplished player than Thiem, and if he continues to make progress under Marian Vajda’s watch, he should be ready to give Rafa a run for the money at Roland Garros. Yet, Djokovic clearly needs a lot of match play, and with Barcelona having a rough draw and Djokovic being seeded lower at Madrid and Rome, he might not get the number of matches he wants, especially if he has to play Rafa in quarterfinals, which he would have done in Monte Carlo had he beaten Thiem. There are still legitimate hurdles for Djokovic to overcome before Roland Garros, so it’s not as though his ascendancy should be taken for granted. It shouldn’t.

If any reaction from this match on Friday feels like an overreaction, it is that Thiem is not ready to win Roland Garros… but this point requires a very specific explanation.

First and most centrally, Thiem has the level of quality on clay which is worthy of a Roland Garros title. One can similarly say that Andy Roddick consistently had the level of quality on grass needed to win Wimbledon titles. The problem for Roddick is that Federer always got in his way. For Thiem, it’s Nadal. if Thiem lands in the half of the Roland Garros draw opposite Nadal, he should make his first Roland Garros final. Thiem — if placed in the mid-1990s, when French Opens were regularly up for grabs — would be in position to win multiple Roland Garros championships, outdoing his Austrian predecessor Thomas Muster, who won one RG crown in 1995. Thiem is singularly unlucky to coexist with the greatest clay-court player in tennis history. Had he landed in any other era, Thiem’s clay-court game — for all his flaws on other surfaces — would be much more appreciated than it is right now.

The other key point to make about Thiem — especially in comparison to Djokovic — is that the Austrian was elevated over Djokovic in a discussion of threats to Nadal on clay for a very simple reason: Djokovic’s combination of injury (lack of fitness) and coaching tumult. I don’t think anyone would regard Thiem as a better player than Djokovic IF Djokovic was healthy, fit, and in a good frame of mind. It simply didn’t seem likely at the end of March that Djokovic was about to return to a place of prominence. Now that he has — or at the very least, appears well on his way to restoring himself — some people are saying that Djokovic never should have been placed below Thiem in terms of a threat to Nadal.

That’s wrong. He should have been… but now that Djokovic has improved, sure, the question can be revisited and Nole can be re-established as the main obstacle to Rafa in Paris.

That having been said, one should still not be too harsh on Thiem for this reason: Beating Djokovic and Rafa in back-to-back matches is HELL. You try to pull it off and see how easy it is. In Rome in 2017, Roland Garros in 2017, and now in Monte Carlo in 2018, Thiem has beaten one of the two but could not win the second match in a back-to-back sequence against those two dominant champions. I wrote a lot on Thursday about how circumstances shape matches. It’s no different on Friday. You don’t want to play Nadal one day after a tense and contentious three-set match against Djokovic. The circumstances pointed to a lopsided Rafa win, and while circumstances don’t guarantee outcomes, they often increase the odds of certain results.

Don’t be too hard on Thiem here — he was not set up in a good position to make this particular encounter very interesting. He beat Rafa last year in Rome because Rafa was exhausted after winning in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid. In Paris last June and now in Monte Carlo nearly 11 months later, Thiem has sat on the other side of the ledger, relative to the effects of circumstances on matches.

Rafael Nadal being a dominant steamrolling nightmare for the rest of the ATP Tour on clay? That point requires no explanation or clarification. As for Dominic Thiem, Novak Djokovic, and other tennis questions, the aftermath of Rafa’s rout of Thiem raises a lot of complicated questions.

Be sure to not overreact to what was — and is — a very predictable outcome.


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