Matt Zemek

A total of 10 clay Masters 1000 tournaments have been held in Madrid, the first one being in 2009. Rafael Nadal has won four of them, an outright minority. By his otherworldly standards on clay, that’s a very small number of trophies. Nadal’s displeasure with Madrid clay is and has been well known. On Friday against Dominic Thiem, he did not look comfortable on the surface inside the inappropriately named La Caja Magica, which takes away Nadal’s magic. If Nadal can cruise through Monte Carlo and Barcelona with seemingly effortless ease, hardly ever playing more than 100 minutes per match, Madrid is the tournament which often throws a monkey wrench into his game. Madrid is the place where Nadal’s gears are gummed up before he fires up the engines again and restores order at Roland Garros, where “real” clay (not that Madrid stuff at altitude) exists.

Nadal’s history with — and in — Madrid makes Friday’s loss to Thiem nothing to be concerned about in terms of the condition of Nadal’s game. The man who won 50 straight clay sets was due for a bad match, and he played one. We are not perfect beings, last time I checked. Thiem, of course, was good enough (not as spectacular as many seem to think, but very impressive nonetheless) to take advantage. 

Thiem in many ways flipped the script Nadal and other legendary players normally write. Contrary to what many people think, he wasn’t incredibly good in this match — he had break leads in both sets and gave them both away with shaky play. However, Nadal gave Thiem second chances, which is when Thiem steadied himself and played authoritatively to close out each set and score a gigantic win for his season. Thiem has not yet won a clay Masters title, and now he is in tremendous position to do so.

“But it’s Madrid,” people will say. Yes, it is only Madrid.

“But Rafa didn’t play well,” people will say. They are right. Rafa played poorly.

Both statements are true. What is also true: Thiem, who looked very uneven for large portions of play against Federico Delbonis and Borna Coric — and who got crushed by Nadal in Monte Carlo and bowed meekly out of Barcelona against Stefanos Tsitsipas — was ready to compete against Nadal in Madrid. He stepped up to the moment and took advantage of the gifts Nadal gave him.

Is this the way Nadal is likely to play in the coming weeks? Of course not. Yet, we have seen many players face C-level Nadal on clay and not beat him. Thiem — had he played the way he did in Barcelona or against Delbonis — would not have beaten Rafa. He had to play better. He knew how huge this match was for his season. He responded. He doesn’t deserve a ticker-tape parade or a Congressional Medal of Honor for winning this match, but he certainly deserves credit after all the criticism he rightly absorbed for his performances on hardcourts. Like another Madrid semifinalist, Kiki Bertens (who subsequently powered her way to the Madrid final in the match preceding Thiem’s on Friday), Thiem is in his mid-20s and has not been able to win consistently on non-clay surfaces. On this stuff, however, he has shown once again that he can stand up to Nadal on dirt.

What is fascinating about the reaction to Thiem’s win is not how widely he is expected to win Madrid now. Quite the contrary. His semifinal opponent, Kevin Anderson, has never lost to the Austrian in six meetings. None of those matches were on clay, but that hasn’t stopped a lot of people from thinking Kando will win Saturday’s first semifinal.

It’s an understandable and reasonable position: Anderson can serve huge at altitude in Madrid and win a lot of cheap points. Moreover, the mental strain of beating Nadal has been known to ambush Thiem before. I can certainly see where — and how — Anderson can win this match. Giving Anderson a good chance of winning is entirely fair.

Yet, thinking this match is a toss-up? That’s different. That posture diminishes the fact that Thiem has already made the Madrid final and very nearly won the first set against Rafa last year. Viewing Kando-Thiem as a 50-50 match on red clay minimizes the extent to which Thiem’s game falls neatly into place on this surface. Even if it’s Madrid clay and not Roman or Parisian clay, Thiem’s huge cuts and powerful hitting do not lead to a tidal wave of errors. Shots that go well long on hardcourts stay within the baseline on red clay, even in Madrid.

The other basic point which needs to be made is this: Thiem was certainly tired after beating Nadal last year in Rome, but the man he had to face next was Novak Djokovic. In Monte Carlo, Thiem played Nole and Rafa on consecutive days. It is true that Thiem could suffer a letdown on Saturday against Anderson — that is entirely possible, and it would not be unprecedented on a general level. However, there is regularly — if not always — a special amount of mental strain involved in playing Nadal and Djokovic in back-to-back matches. Thiem failed to beat both in Rome and Paris last year, Monte Carlo this year.

Saturday in the Madrid semifinals, Thiem does not have to do that. Skepticism of his ability to beat Anderson — Kevin Anderson! — on red clay is a sign of how much Thiem’s game and mentality are still distrusted.

Yes, I am a firm believer that one should doubt certain players until they show they are ready to overcome a familiar hurdle in sports. This is why I thought the Cleveland Cavaliers would still beat the Toronto Raptors, despite the fact that Toronto won a lot more games during the regular season and the Cavs were a mess for most of the year.

What is different here: Though Thiem has never beaten Anderson, he has also never played him on clay. Given Thiem’s surface-specific prowess, this match on Saturday does not fall into the “never done something before” silo a number of people are using to discount Thiem’s chances.

It is strange but true, in a very unexpected way: As big as it was for Thiem to oust Rafael Nadal on red clay, stopping his 50-set clay winning streak and giving him his first clay-court loss in 51 weeks, the Anderson match might mean more to global tennis observers in terms of how they perceive Thiem’s readiness to lift his career to the next level.


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