The tennis world had been searching for this version of Dominic Thiem — not in April, May or early June, but in the other 9.5 months of the tennis season. Thiem owns a tennis game with heft. The ball explodes off his racquet in ways unmatched by a large majority of players. Thiem regularly delivers a considerable weight of shot. Power, topspin, the ability to hit diagonally in ways that open the court, a formidable power serve and a wide ad-court kicker, are all highly developed skills in Thiem’s arsenal.
Yet, before Thiem came to New York for the 2018 U.S. Open, he had never made a quarterfinal at a hardcourt major. He had never made a semifinal at any of the six hardcourt Masters 1000 events — the Sunshine swing in spring, the North American summer swing, or the Shanghai-Bercy swing in autumn. He had won only one hardcourt tournament of any kind, the ATP 500 stop in Acapulco in late February. He had won the ATP 250 grass tournament in Stuttgart a few years ago. Those were his only notable non-clay tournaments to date.
Thiem’s summer disaster was well documented. He wasn’t fully healthy at Wimbledon and needed to rest after the tournament, but he played Hamburg and Kitzbuhel, two ill-advised decisions. He did poorly in those tournaments, came to Toronto, lost early to Stefanos Tsitsipas, and later acknowledged that he didn’t feel well and was partly worn down by the cross-continental travel from Europe to North America. He didn’t play Cincinnati, giving him virtually no match preparation for the U.S. Open. For a player who had not been able to cultivate a more calibrated and precise game on hardcourts, the lack of preparation seemed to be likely to matter, even though he got a decent draw through the first three rounds.
Thiem did indeed struggle with Steve Johnson and Taylor Fritz, but he worked through difficult patches to get to the fourth round. It wasn’t a mind-blowing achievement or a sign that he had turned the corner, but at least he had not regressed. That was something.
Then, as though coming out of nowhere, Dominic Thiem — this tortured hardcourt soul — grew in stature and confidence before our very eyes. The idea that Thiem had the talent to win on non-clay surfaces is easy to accept. The idea that he was ready to transform his hardcourt game this year, not in 2019 or 2020, was a much harder sell.
Thiem — whose main sin as a tennis player, if anything, is to do whatever he does TOO hard, as opposed to not hard enough — could never be accused of taking shortcuts or being afraid of hard work. He has always been willing to attack the sport of tennis and build a better base of fitness and preparation. The problem was that while Thiem loves working harder than the next guy, he hadn’t always worked SMARTER. Playing with more margin, choosing the right time to go for a shot, staying balanced through the contact point with the ball, had often evaded Thiem on hardcourts.
In the fourth round against defending U.S. Open finalist Kevin Anderson, Thiem enlarged his margins. The errors (usually long behind the baseline, sometimes wide in the doubles alleys) which had leaked from his racquet for years on hardcourt suddenly diminished. Thiem timed the ball better, and he told ESPN that he was working on taking shorter backswings and playing closer to the baseline in rallies. The adjustments his hardcourt style had long needed were finally entering the equation. Thiem swept past Anderson in three convincing sets to make his first major quarterfinal.
That’s all well and good, his critics (I being one of them) inwardly thought. Let’s see you play sustained quality hardcourt tennis against RAFA under the lights. Then we’ll remove the “clay-court specialist” tag from your back.
Consider it removed.
For nearly five hours, Thiem lived on the tightrope that all top pros (with the possible — and only partial — exception of Novak Djokovic) must walk against Rafael Nadal. One can’t unload on any shot from any spot on the court; some discretion is needed. Yet, one has to be willing to go for low-margin shots against Nadal so that he can’t maintain a comfort zone along the baseline and steer attritional rallies in his direction. Nadal opponents have to be willing to litter the stat sheet, being content to make 10 errors if one can make 15 winners or 20 shots which set up a winner on the next shot. Thiem did have to play with a measure of margin on Tuesday against Rafa in the U.S. Open quarterfinals, but he couldn’t sit back and play it safe. No one can.
If there seemed to be a realistic path to victory for Thiem, it was to win the first set, get on top of the match, and not let Nadal get back up. Thiem bageled Rafa in the first set — that part of the plan went perfectly — and although Thiem lost focus late in the second set, he dug himself out of tough spots and earned the right to serve for the third set at 5-4. He had the match in a very good position. Asking Rafa to win two straight sets in a prolonged match, after he had needed 4:23 to beat Karen Khachanov (third round) and 3:19 to beat Nikoloz Basilashvili (fourth round), would not have been beyond the Spaniard’s capabilities, but it would have forced him to be great for 90 to 120 straight minutes with no more than a very slight lull. Winning the third set would not have assured Thiem of victory, but it would have put him in the driver’s seat, given the humid conditions in New York which Nadal hates.
*5-4 in the third set was one of those moments when elite players shut the door on hard-charging opponents. Thiem had not sniffed Nadal in multiple prior meetings at Roland Garros, but on hardcourts — as slow as the Ashe Stadium surface is this year — the Austrian was able to hit through the court a little more consistently against a defender who wasn’t sliding into shots the way he comfortably does on clay. Hardcourts punish Nadal’s knee joints, and so Thiem’s big game was able to do more damage than it had on Court Philippe Chatrier. Because of the non-clay environment, a big serve would be rewarded more than in Paris — Thiem hit 18 aces by the time this match ended — but as we say so often in tennis, “Timeliness is the measure of greatness in this sport.” Serving huge at 2-2 or 3-3 is all well and good, but can you do it when trying to take the lead after three sets against Rafa at a major?
Thiem could not pass that test. He made a few sloppy errors and couldn’t get enough unreturnable serves to secure a lead. He was broken, and minutes later, he lost the set 7-5, drowning in a sea of bad decisions.
If you had thought at that point in time that Thiem would fade away, you would have had every reason to think so. Thiem fought the good fight but lost his nerve under pressure, a very familiar and common experience for non-Big 3 players against the goliaths of the sport. That Thiem had evolved enough on hardcourts to make Rafa sweat late in the third set was a feat in itself. That much progress had already recalibrated Thiem’s expectations and raised his hardcourt ceiling for 2019. He had already grown. No one (no one who was being REASONABLE, at any rate) would have held it against him if he finally lost steam in the fourth. When he hit a very easy overhead at the net right back to Nadal, who poked the shot into the open court for a winner, Thiem — serving at *0-1 — fell into a 15-40 hole. Nadal was going in for the kill. The night wasn’t a short one, but it figured to end around 12:40 a.m. in about 3.5 hours.
Thiem then made the statement that turned a good battle into a memorable duel — not a classic end-to-end tennis match, but a riveting contest with a deliciously tense and well-fought denouement.
Thiem soared on the next four points at *0-1 and 15-40 to hold for 1-1. He sent a thunderous message to Rafa that he was not going to fade into the New York night. Thiem’s physical fitness is considerable, but his thought process and go-for-broke style can unravel when he loses focus. Thiem showed early in the fourth that he wasn’t going to cede that mental territory to a master of the competitive arts. Thiem broke Nadal for *2-1, and although he later flinched when trying to preserve his break lead — much as he had in the third set — he had established the reality that for every misstep he made, he would answer with an even better recovery. If he took a punch from Rafa, he unfailingly punched back. He dominated the fourth-set tiebreaker to level the match at two sets apiece.
That in itself was yet ANOTHER declaration of evolution and increased maturity.
Again, if Thiem lost the battle in the fifth set, reasonable people would not have been ruthless and unkind toward him. He kept climbing the mountain against the ultimate mountain climber in men’s tennis.
Thiem continued to exceed expectations of his capabilities.
At 2-2 in the fifth, Thiem fell into another 15-40 hole, eliciting the pervasive thought that he was about to be toppled.
He pulled four straight points from the top of the drawer, as Robbie Koenig would say, to hold for 3-2.
Thiem just kept answering the bell as the time of match moved from three hours to 3:30 to four hours and beyond.
He fell behind 0-40 at 5-5 and seemed to be done, done, done for good. He hit two aces but then needed a second serve at 30-40. Thiem dug his way out of trouble in most instances, but on that 30-40 point, Nadal got tight and netted a relatively ordinary second serve. It is the kind of shot Nadal normally makes, the kind of shot a Big 3 player normally makes, but Thiem had to get from 0-40 to 30-40 in the first place to create that small granule of luck and work his way back to deuce, eventually holding for 6-5. Two players slugging a ball for nearly five hours are not going to be perfect. They have to put themselves in positions where an opponent’s error won’t merely turn 0-40 into 15-40, but 30-40 into deuce or deuce into advantage. Thiem did that at 5-5 in the fifth, and he did that throughout the night.
Nadal asked him question after question. Thiem came up with answer after answer throughout the night.
This was the man who had no clue on hardcourts before this tournament began? This was the man who looked and felt so naked and lost on non-clay courts before turning 25 years old on Monday? This was the same man… and yet it wasn’t. This was the new Dominic Thiem, the one who can unleash the full measure of his high-octane tennis for nearly five hours without flinching against an iconically great tennis competitor. When the clock hit 2:00 in the morning in New York, Thiem was two points from winning the match after making a spectacular net retrieval of a Nadal volley and winning two second-serve points to put Nadal in trouble.
After failing so profoundly on hardcourts for years, Thiem crammed a season’s worth of successes into one match. This was a performance more than worthy of victory, a show of strength forged from the rubble of his despair in Hamburg, Kitzbuhel and Toronto. It was an outpouring of immense talent under suffocating pressure, a night of tennis when a boy became a man in a new realm. It was everything anyone could have ever expected Dominic Thiem to become on hardcourts — and then some. It was the height of athletic prowess in its skill and daring, but also in its stamina and resolve. It was a complete, if flawed and occasionally wobbly, demonstration of tennis acumen. It was Dominic Thiem in new clothes, an Austrian robed in the resilience and resourcefulness of a man destined for glory.
Surely, this performance was good enough to win. Surely, this portrait of premium perseverance would be rewarded. Surely, this “are you kidding me?” parade of gutsy shotmaking and all-court defense was sufficient against an opponent with a tired body, less-than-fully-healthy knees, and a lot of accumulated court time over the past six days in New York.
If you think Rafael Nadal has been shortchanged in this column, please understand the following: Thiem was the mystery man heading into this match. Rafa had won four major hardcourt titles and several Masters 1000 hardcourt titles, including one in Toronto last month. Nadal has made stacks of significant hardcourt finals where Djokovic usually stood in the way. Rafa’s accomplishments on hardcourts are formidable. He was not the man to be doubted or distrusted. Thiem was. Therefore, this column has been spent focusing on the dozens of ways in which Thiem fulfilled or exceeded expectations as a hardcout player. This column has emphasized the vast, deep and layered ways in which Thiem evolved as a competitor and grew as a craftsman on a non-clay surface. Thiem transcended his past, his scars, his weaknesses, his uncertainties, his limitations, everything an athlete must subdue in order to become great. There was nothing more Thiem could have tried. He couldn’t have competed harder. He couldn’t have answered tough situations much better than he did. He was legitimately special.
And he lost.
All that work, all that excellence, all that improvement, all that toughness, all that composure, all that applied wisdom, all those 15-40 saves and blistered backhand winners — all of that STILL did not carry him past Rafael Nadal Parera.
Rafa, the 32-year-old with nothing to prove, with knees that don’t receive the punishment of hardcourts very easily, with balky net play and a lot of miles on the odometer, took everything Thiem had to give, matched it…
… and then won the last two points, winning in 4:49 at 2:03 in the morning.
The man with 17 major titles fought like a man in search of his first major — which is also how Dominic Thiem fought on Tuesday night into Wednesday morning — and thwarted the man seven years his junior.
This was classic Nadal, winning a match in which an inspired opponent played unusually well and expanded his own sense of possibility over a long period of time. This match recalled the nearly five-hour 2017 Australian Open semifinal against Grigor Dimitrov. It also conjured memories of the 2009 Australian Open semifinal against Fernando Verdasco, which took 5:14. Nadal has been winning these matches for over a decade, but when he won them 10 to 12 years ago, he was the fresh-legged kid in the stadium. Now he is the 32-year-old with tread on the tires and a bank vault of prestigious trophies.
That he can still win these matches — and do so with regularity — is all you need to know about Rafa and the insanely high level at which he continues to compete. His opponent was better than ever in a number of obvious ways, but “better than ever” often isn’t good enough to beat Nadal.
That’s who he is. That’s what he does.
Nadal. The name says it all.