Barcelona 2019: Thiem downs home hero Nadal to set title tilt against Medvedev
Dominic Thiem beats home favourite Rafael Nadal to set up a final meeting with Daniil Medvedev
Was there anyone or anything that could get the better of 11-time champion Rafael Nadal in Barcelona, a tournament that he has so dominated that the centre court is already named in his honour?
The task on this occasion fell to Dominic Thiem, and what a task: Nadal was 61-3 in the tournament and going for his 12th title; had a career record of 421-37on clay—a 92 percent success rate; and owned a tally of 57 clay titles. He had not lost in Barcelona since 2015, so came to the semi-finals on an 18-match run, but about to face his first seed in the tournament.
And if anyone could make a dent in those records, many believed it could be Thiem. The world No5 had won eight of his 12 titles on clay, and had also made the finals of the French Open, the Madrid Masters (twice) and Barcelona. But three of those finals were lost to Nadal.
However, Thiem had got the better of the mighty Spaniard three times, in Buenos Aires, and at the Rome and Madrid Masters. Their most recent meeting, at the US Open last year, may have been on hard courts, but that too was a thriller, decided in Nadal’s favour in a fifth-set tie-breaker.
And Thiem was proving himself to be one of the most resilient competitors on the tour, a member of the top 10 for almost three straight years, and in Barcelona with a first Masters title under his belt, and one of the biggest in the calendar, Indian Wells, where he beat Roger Federer.
He had rung the changes on the coaching front for the first time in many a year, too, bringing on Nicolas Massu to inject some different looks into his tennis. Yet this was Nadal, and on his home court before his home crowd.
However the young Austrian, slight, fast, and with one of the strongest single-handed backhands in tennis—comparable at its best to that of Stan Wawrinka—showed all the determination of a man looking to avenge his final loss to Nadal in Barcelona in 2017.
It was an inauspicious start for the home hero. He opened with a double fault, and then made a fourth on break point in the fifth game. Thiem, whose play from the back of the court seemed to match Nadal’s every move and then some, held to love, with a run of 10 points from 12, 4-2, and kept up some relentless pressure with a variety of winners through a compelling 13-minute seventh game. Nadal did save four break points, but he would not be able to break Thiem, who served out the set, 6-4.
The second set opened in a similar fashion, a double fault bringing up two break points against Nadal, but this time the Spaniard thumped two big forehands and fist-pumped his hold.
However, come the fifth game, he could not resist Thiem’s constant probing and brilliant defence, and a backhand cross-court winner from the Austrian brought up more break chances. Nadal saved the first with an ace, but not the second, and it seemed as though the air had been sucked from the Rafa Nadal Arena as silence greeted the break.
Thiem rubbed salt into the wound with a love hold, and pressed again on the next two Nadal service games, but the Spaniard held on, and at last there was a glimmer of a chance against Thiem’s serve. Would the pretender to the throne waver under the pressure of the Spanish arena? He went 0-40 down, and the roars reverberated, but Thiem remained bold, won a drop shot, aced, and held for a famous win, 6-4, after more than two hours.
His response, when asked about the achievement?
“I’m always super proud if I beat him because he’s the best player ever on this surface, and it’s always very special to beat him here on clay… I was more lucky today and I got the win… If I see the names of who won here, this tournament, of course I would love to be there as well.”
The Austrian has now won his most recent matches against Novak Djokovic, Federer and Nadal—not something that many can claim. But to win his first Barcelona title, he will have to play a man with big ambitions of his own, the in-form 23-year-old Russian Daniil Medvedev.
For the other semi-final proved to be a thriller between No7 seed Medvedev and No4 seed and two-time former champion Kei Nishikori.
Medvedev was proving to be the most consistent player on the tour in 2019, and had notched up a leading 24-7 record including a fourth career title. And having won just two clay matches before this year, he was now up to 7-1 after reaching the semis at the Monte-Carlo Masters via a victory over world No1 Djokovic.
But it was against Medvedev that Nishikori ended a 51-tournament title drought in the Brisbane final in January. So while he had lost to Medvedev in Tokyo last autumn, the start of this year was a different story, a 12-3 win-loss before a slump in the last few weeks.
However, it was Medvedev who burst from the blocks with fire and intent, plying his flat, hard baseline shot-making to the full width of the court. He broke courtesy of two blistering backhand passes and consolidated with a love hold.
Nishikori tried to mix things up with some fine drop shots, and taking an aggressive stance at the front of the court, but he could not convert a break chance at 4-5 down. Medvedev made three straight winners, two of them aces, for the set, 6-4.
Nishikori responded in kind, injecting more pace and more acute angles into his shots, and held off an initial break point. Come the eighth game, the former champion was rewarded for his bold play and a drop-shot/lob winner with a break, and he pulled off another drop-shot for the set, 6-3.
And the Japanese man continued his aggressive form into the decider with an immediate break. However, Medvedev did not flag: indeed, he looked composed and focused. He broke back, 2-2, and although both men then had chances for a decisive break, it would go almost to the distance. Medvedev held with an ace, 6-5, and produced a stunning backhand winner to bring up match-point. After almost two and a half hours, the young Russian forced one last error, 7-5, to reach his third final of the year, and his first ever on clay—his 25th win of the year.
So Barcelona will have a new champion, in a final between the two men who dispatched the last two champions.
Thiem and Medvedev had played each other only once before, on the Russian’s home ground and preferred surface, St Petersburg, where he won in a third-set tie-break.
And judging by the form of both for this title bout, it could be just as close.