Sports throws up a variety of intriguing narratives -- champion vs underdog, unbelievable comebacks, changing of the guard and so on. One such is currently being played out on the clay-courts of Europe. A battle is brewing between a king and his heir apparent.
For the past fourteen years, Rafael Nadal has ruled over the red dirt with the authority of a monarch. With 11 French Open titles, and a combined 36 titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid and Rome, he has been the undisputed king of the clay. The last three years, though, have seen the steady rise of a player dubbed the Prince the Clay -- Dominic Thiem.
One look at Thiem’s game and it’s hard to miss the similarities between him and Nadal -- a heavy topspin forehand with the exaggerated back-swing, incredible foot speed, supreme fitness and even the loud grunt. Though Thiem might still not possess Nadal's mental arsenal, he is a fighter and capable of batting through five sets as he showed us in his epic US Open quarterfinal against Nadal last year.
The Prince of Clay
In 2016, Thiem reached the Roland Garros semi-finals, losing to eventual champion Novak Djokovic. In the 2017 season, he was easily the second-best player on clay after Nadal. He beat Djokovic in the quarterfinal that year, thumping him 6-0 in the third set before losing to an untouchable Nadal. In 2018, he reached his first Grand Slam final in Paris, again falling to Nadal. A steady improvement each year.
What’s more, Thiem has beaten Nadal on clay in each of the past four clay seasons, including at Barcelona this year. He was the only player to beat Nadal on clay in 2017 and 2018. Also, he is the only player after Djokovic to have beaten Nadal on clay on four or more occasions.
Though Thiem has struggled with consistency, he has never looked more dangerous than he does now. Capturing his maiden Masters 1000 trophy at Indian Wells this year after a memorable win over Roger Federer seems to have unlocked something inside him.
He has never looked as calm and assured while winning a title as he did at Barcelona. In all of his previous wins over Nadal, he had to play out of his skin -- routinely finding the lines on the court. But the win at Barcelona was a measured one, a match where he was solid from start to finish.
Thiem carried on his good form in Madrid before falling to Djokovic in a close semi-final. In Rome, though, he was undone by an inspired performance from Fernando Verdasco, one of the trickiest first-round opponents in the game.
In a rare show of anger, Thiem blamed the tournament organisers for their handling of the players on Wednesday, when all the matches were washed out due to rain. But despite the early exit in Rome, there’s no doubt that Thiem is a favourite to win the French Open.
Roland Garros and Rafael Nadal
There’s no question that until Rome, Nadal had looked vulnerable on clay this year. For the first time since 2004, Nadal arrived in Rome without a clay-court crown. The unending series of injuries over the past year seemed to have taken a toll on him mentally. As he had mentioned at Indian Wells, after his withdrawal from the semi-final against Roger Federer, it has become tough for him to accept the injuries that have plagued him.
But like a steam engine building momentum, Nadal has improved steadily through the clay season. The Nadal we saw in Rome was a man on a mission, dishing out 6-0 bagels to Jeremy Chardy, Nikoloz Basilashvili, Verdasco and even Djokovic.
In particular, Nadal’s performance in the final against Djokovic confirmed that the engine was now running full steam. It’s difficult to recall the last time that Nadal dominated Djokovic in such fashion, outplaying him from the first shot to last.
Even if Nadal had not won in Rome, only a fool would write off his chances at the French Open. It is his dominion, a place that transforms him from a mortal to a God. Though the smaller forts of Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid and Rome might fall, Roland Garros has proved infallible for the majority of the past fourteen years.
A case in point is his 2014 clay season. He lost early in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. A shaky win in Madrid thanks to an injury to Kei Nishikori, followed by a loss to Djokovic in Rome prompted many to believe that he would fall short of keeping his crown in Paris. But at the French Open, the Nadal of old surfaced again to beat Djokovic in an epic final.
French Open 2019 – more open this year?
The French Open this year looks more open than the previous two years. Djokovic is on a three-slam run. The return of Federer makes things interesting. And the Prince of Clay is threatening to finally take the crown from the King.
But Nadal is one of the greatest fighters in sport. He thrives when his back is against the wall. It is a situation he is familiar with, when his instincts kick in. Rome unleashed this fighter in him. The confidence is back.
If Nadal and Thiem do battle on Court Philippe Chatrier on June 9, it could come to define an era. But no matter who wins, it would be a fitting culmination to the clay-court season.Published 22 May 2019, 16:52 IST