Madrid Masters: Nadal beats gutsy Thiem to join Djokovic with record-equalling 30th Masters
Home favourite Rafael Nadal wins his 30th Masters title by beating Dominic Thiem to triumph in the Madrid final
It had been on the cards since Dominic Thiem’s teenage years, with his first main-tour quarter-finals in 2013—and he reached his first final the very next year, age just 20.
Indeed, anyone who watched courtside as the young Austrian with the one-handed backhand gave Andy Murray the fright of his life in Rotterdam in 2014 could not fail to be impressed with the power and variety of his game.
That same year, he made the third round here in Madrid, beating Stan Wawrinka, and that same year, he also had his first taste of Rafael Nadal on clay: He lost in three sets in the second round of the French Open. But people began to sit up and take notice.
Come 2015, and still age just 21, Thiem won three titles, and last year he made the semis at Roland Garros. By the time he reached his first Masters final this weekend, back in Madrid, he had accumulated eight titles from 12 finals, two of them at 500 level.
And to give a still more context to this young player’s achievement on clay, Thiem beat Murray in Barcelona last month and had even beaten Nadal on the red stuff in Rio last year in a final-set tie-break.
Yes, Thiem had not disappointed those early predictions and expectations.
But his misfortune in Spain was that he took on Nadal in a clay-court final, and in front of an adoring home crowd, for the second time in a fortnight, and at a time when the Spaniard seemed to have regained his peak form. In Barcelona, Nadal won his 10th title at the expense of Thiem, 6-4, 6-1, two weeks after winning his 10th title in Monte-Carlo.
That clay form, reinforced yesterday in the semis by his first victory over Novak Djokovic after seven straight losses, continued his hot opening to 2017—finals at the Australian Open, Miami and Acapulco—and all that after an injury-blighted 2016.
Against such a player, and against perhaps 90 percent of the Caja Magica, did Thiem now have enough belief, game and physical resources to take the next big step in his tennis career? Even the Austrian conceded:
“If I’m at my best and he’s at his best on clay, he’s probably the better player. If you see his records on this surface, it’s just amazing. But tomorrow is a new day. I will try to improve the things I didn’t do that good in Barcelona, and then we will see what happens.”
What happened was that Thiem got the near perfect start, breaking in the third game as Nadal failed to pull off what had been a highly successful tactic this week, the drop shot.
The Austrian then showed what power he has from the baseline—indeed from well behind the baseline—and he cracked a cross-court backhand winner for 3-1.
But Thiem’s comparative weakness in the front of the court was exposed in the sixth game as he fluffed a net point and Nadal broke back, and this time he held his own serve with a perfect drop winner.
Time and again, Nadal punished Thiem for playing so deep by playing sliced drop shots: When the Austrian was not chasing wide behind the baseline, he was sprinting forward. Some big serving helped him to hold, though he almost came unstuck in the 10th game as two forehands went long. From 0-40 down, though, he crushed three winners and aced to hold, 5-5.
Come the inevitable tie-break, Thiem again opted to play way back, and that worked for some of the time, but he seemed reluctant to mix it up with plays inside the baseline, and Nadal thrives on rhythm. Indeed it was the Spaniard who came in to finish twice at the net for 3-2.
But Thiem’s huge swings at the ball penetrated the Nadal defence to bring up set point. Nadal turned the score back in his favour, only for Thiem to serve big and finish with a forehand—a Federer-like tactic that he did not use often enough.
One of his few successes at the net, a touch winner, gave him another bite of the cherry, but Nadal’s serving, one of the most improved areas of his game, held strong, and a final Thiem forehand flew long to concede a pulsating tie-break and the set, 7-6(8). It had taken 78 minutes, with eight of its 18 points coming from winners.
How much did Thiem have left after such a late finish the night before—and after so much running in that first set? Well he was tested to the limit in the first game of the second set, as Nadal absorbed all the Austrian’s power through a long rally on break point, and Thiem’s forehand broke down first.
But then it was Nadal’s turn to come under pressure—four deuces finally earned a break chance from a down the line winner by Thiem, but Nadal threw in that drop shot again and held with an ace, 2-0.
To the younger player’s credit, he never wilted under the most intense pressure, the kind of pummelling, plunging shot-making that only Nadal can produce on a clay court. Thiem held off two break points—match points—in the ninth game, first with a forehand winner then a backhand winner, and then he gave his all in one final assault on Nadal.
The longest game of the match would see four break points come and go, saved here with an ace, there with a signature running forehand down the line, now with a drop shot, and then another ace. A third match point evaporated, but Nadal did not make a mistake on the fourth, coming in for a volley winner and victory after two hours and 20 minutes.
The remarkable Nadal, continuing his remarkable come-back from a tough 2016, has now won all 15 clay matches and all three clay tournaments he has played. Madrid also marks his 30th Masters title, drawing him level with the record held by last year’s champion, Djokovic.
Nadal overtook Roger Federer to the top spot in the Race to London yesterday and today overtakes him to No4 in the overall rankings. It is hard to see him failing to claim a 10th French Open title next month, too, and after his tearful withdrawal from his beloved Roland Garros with wrist injury last year, that would certainly be an achievement to relish.
But for Thiem, this has been a big step forward too, a throwing down of the gauntlet to the other younger men with aspirations to break the stranglehold of the ‘big four’ when it comes to Majors and Masters.
With this gutsy and far from one-sided result, he rises to No3 in the Race and returns to his career-high No7 overall. All those above him, aside from 26-year-old Milos Raonic, will be in their 30s by the time they reach Roland Garros in a fortnight’s time. Thiem therefore has time on his side.