Individually, Rafael Nadal has not done something uniquely new at this U.S. Open. He has played the feel-good hits. Specifically, he has fended off in-form opponents who landed their best punches and won at least one round but couldn’t win the bout inside the ring. Nadal took the blows and witnessed brilliant shots from the other side of the net, but he waited out his opponents to some degree and transcended them when he had to. He prevailed. It’s what Nadal does. That in itself is not a novel development.
What will be new for Rafa at this U.S. Open — on Tuesday night in Arthur Ashe Stadium — will be the context of his latest meeting with Dominic Thiem. Nadal and Thiem are very familiar opponents on European clay. They have met in Monte Carlo. They have met in Barcelona. They have met in Madrid and in Rome. They have met at Roland Garros. They have met at all the tour stops where Nadal normally plays. They have met on Nadal’s preferred piece of real estate, red European clay.
Now, though, they will meet on a surface other than clay for the first time. They will also meet in North America for the first time. They will also meet in Ashe Stadium for the first time, which is notable in that Thiem rarely plays there and will have over 23,000 fans to look at when he takes the court. This is a familiar matchup, but with entirely new clothing inside a different house. The furniture is foreign, the stakes high but not what these men are used to… and in ways which could help Thiem.
It is not — or at least, it should not be — a controversial statement to say that Thiem’s most pressure-packed matches of each season are on clay. That is the surface where he is expected to do well. It is the surface where he needs to build and then defend rankings points to keep his place in the top 10. Thiem grew up in Austria, where Thomas Muster grew into a Roland Garros champion. Austrians revere Roland Garros more than the other major tournaments. Culturally, clay matters to Thiem in ways other surfaces won’t. When he therefore plays Nadal in Rome or Paris, the magnitude of the moment is enormous. In those matches, Thiem is the prince, trying to dethrone the King of Clay. Thiem hasn’t won clay Masters 1000 titles as Sascha Zverev has, but his Roland Garros track record and his wins over Rafa the past two years give Thiem the right to claim that he has been the second-best clay-court player in the world over the past two clay seasons. You can make an argument for Zverev, but Thiem also has a strong and compelling case. Thiem has done a lot to reinforce his standing in the sport on clay.
What has been missing is a similar level of authoritative quality on other surfaces.
Sunday against Kevin Anderson — defending U.S. Open runner-up Kevin Andereson, 2018 Wimbledon runner-up Kevin Anderson — Thiem unfurled that quality in every facet of his game. Ruthless on serve, effective with his groundstrokes, alert with his defense, and deft with his touch, Thiem finally looked like a comfortable tennis player on a surface where his game had been so disjointed and lacking calibration. Thiem has been working to shorten his backswing on groundstrokes. He has returned serve from a deeper position but moved up in the court near the baseline in rallies. These adjustments were always needed but slow to arrive. Thiem finally has managed to apply them to a greater degree, and as a result, he has notched his first hardcourt major quarterfinal berth.
He now gets to see if he can apply his newfound lessons against Rafa.
Both players live to play on clay, so how the dynamics of the matchup transfer (or not) to hardcourts will be an obvious centerpiece of the match. Yet, Nadal has won four hardcourt majors and a number of hardcourt Masters 1000 titles. If Thiem is the entirely unproven entity on this surface, Nadal — while not the giant Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer are on cement — is still legitimately great on hardcourts. That’s what works against Thiem on Tuesday night.
Yet, what can still turn in favor of Thiem is that if he has regularly had to play Rafa on the Spaniard’s best surface, maybe the reality of playing on a different surface will speed up the game — and points — in ways which will help Thiem’s shots penetrate the court. Facing Nadal on a non-clay surface could reward Thiem’s game. The U.S. Open courts are slow, but they still won’t have the spin or kick of clay. That could help Thiem — not so much that he is in his favored element (he is not), but that Rafa isn’t (even if Rafa’s less-favored element is still a surface where he has forged considerable successes and triumphs).
What could help Thiem even more than that last detail is that on a non-clay surface, Thiem’s expectations — at least in the public imagination — are close to zero. Lacking a track record of significant wins makes it very hard to trust Thiem in this matchup at the U.S. Open, but it does mean that Thiem is playing with house money. He isn’t playing with the “I have to win this match to make my season count” form of pressure which accompanies his Roland Garros matches. He hasn’t come close to figuring out Rafa in Paris in five-set contexts. Maybe New York will elicit something new in Dominic.
No, I am certainly going to trust that Nadal will find the right answers against Thiem — he is the far more proven player, and Thiem MUST win the first set to have any realistic chance here. Yet, Thiem is arriving at this latest match against Nadal from a new and fresh vantage point… and newness is something Dominic Thiem has needed in his tennis career. Now that he has a first-time scenario to confront, maybe his evident talent will spill out in full flower on the Ashe Stadium court.
If it does, we could have a memorable match on our hands.