For years Dominic Thiem has been seen as the ‘Prince of Clay’ and the eventual successor to Rafael Nadal’s throne as the ultimate King on the red dirt.
Slowly but surely he has knocked on that door, only for the Spaniard to slam it shut when they have locked horns in two Roland Garros finals.
It remains a very real career goal for the 27-year-old Austrian to triumph on the Parisian clay, and given his career trajectory in the last two years, he’ll be leading the favourites trying to usurp Nadal in 2021.
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In the meantime the Austrian has begun to finally realise his potential as one of the sport’s elite stars on another surface. He’s now very much a ‘hot-shot on hard’.
Last year he won his first Masters 1000 at Indian Wells and was the runner-up at the 2019 ATP finals and at the Australian Open back in January. He finally landed his maiden major at the US Open in September with all of those runs underlining his growth as a real force on a hard court.
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His form on the surface is such that many even had him going in to this ATP Tour finals clash with Nadal as the favourite. That is not often the case when a member of the ‘big three’ is gearing up at the opposite end of the net.
This hard-fought victory over Nadal was not only the stand-out performance of the week so far, it was a statement of his very real title intent following the emotional and physical dip that inevitably followed his success at Flushing Meadows.
Yes, indoor hard is arguably Nadal’s least successful surface, but make no mistake about it, the Spaniard was in top-class form in his 7-6 7-6 loss to Thiem. Against most opponents he would have triumphed and taken a significant step to towards the semi finals of a tournament that remains a glaring gap on his incredible CV.
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It was simply a case that world number three Thiem played the big points better and showed mental toughness at key moments that has been a hallmark of Nadal for the best part of the last 15 years.
Thiem saved two set points in the first-set tie break and then recovered from a break down in Set 2 to once again thwart the 20-time Grand Slam champion. It mirrored their Australian Open quarter final battle back in January when Thiem won all three tie breaks to dump Nadal out following a four-set epic.
The man nicknamed ‘the Dominator’ has now edged six of his last seven tie breaks at the expense of the Mallorcan, further demonstrating his standing as someone who can now deliver on the big occasion under pressure.
Much of that credit must go to his partnership with Nicolas Massu, himself a former top 10 player. Since parting with long-term coach, Gunter Bresnik in 2019, Thiem’s evolution has taken him to the heights he had been dreaming of.
They have made subtle adjustments to his powerhouse game, taming his raw but blockbusting strokes off both wings to reduce errors. He is more tactically astute and has developed a greater mental strength from exposure to major finals, disappointments and ultimately triumphs that have turned him from a nearly man into a champion.
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Since the start of last year he has an 8-3 record in matches against the ‘big three’, beating Nadal (3-1) and Roger Federer (3-0) while tying with Novak Djokovic (2-2). He has also won more Grand Slam matches (17) this year than any other player at this event and has a 24-7 record for the season.
This success at the expense of Nadal does not create the same shockwaves as it would on clay, but it was the manner of the victory that really caught the attention. The level at both ends of the court did not dip throughout the two hour and 26 minute encounter, so to still beat the ultimate fighter in Nadal, takes some doing.
Djokovic’s display in his opening win over Diego Schwartzman and his record at these finals overall rightly place him as the favourite to claim the title again here, but this performance from Thiem was another level up.
It isn't a one-off either. The Austrian has earned the right to be seen as a major force on a hard court and on this evidence he is going to take some stopping this week - and he'll definitely be in the hunt for the big prizes when the tour returns again in 2021.
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