Dominic Thiem, the runner-up at the Australian Open earlier this month, returns to his favorite surface - clay - at the upcoming Rio Open. The 26-year-old Austrian is the No. 1 seed at the 7th edition of the Rio Open, and is joined by other quality players like Borna Coric, Dusan Lajovic, Fernando Verdasco and Guido Pella to name a few.
Thiem has a 10-3 win-loss record so far at Rio, having won the the tournament back in 2017 - where he didn't drop a set all week. After losing in the very first round at Rio in 2019, Thiem would be hoping for a much-improved performance this year, especially after his heroics Down Under a few weeks ago.
Thiem won the last tournament that he played on clay, at his home event Kitzbuhel in August last year. His claycourt game is in fine working order, there's no doubt about that.
Following a disastrous start to 2020 where he lost two of his three matches at the ATP Cup for Austria, the 26-year-old turned things around spectacularly before falling just short against Novak Djokovic in the final at Melbourne. Let’s have a closer look at Thiem’s projected path to the title at Rio this year, as he looks to build on his momentum:
Thiem will start off his campaign by taking on little-known Brazilian player Felipe Meligeni Rodrigues Alves, who happens to be a wild-card entry. One can expect the Austrian to have an easy time in that opening round encounter.
In the Round of 16, Thiem could meet the young and talented Spaniard Jaume Munar, who was a quarter-finalist at the 2019 Rio Open. The 22-year old Spaniard is a claycourt specialist and has recorded wins over Alexander Zverev and Frances Tiafoe on clay in the past. After his dismal performances at the Cordoba Open and Argentina Open earlier this month, he would aim for a resurgence at the first ATP 500 tournament on clay this year.
But Thiem leads Munar 2-0 in their head-to-head, and both of his wins have come on the red clay of Barcelona. Munar might pose a few threats to Thiem, but the Austrian ideally should not have any problems seeing off the young Spaniard.
In his first real test at the Rio Open, Thiem could face Argentina Open champion Casper Ruud in the quarterfinal. The 21-year-old Ruud has been on a roll and dropped just one set en route his victory at the recently concluded Buenos Aires event. If the two take on each other in the quarter-final, it would be their first ever face-off on the ATP tour - and would likely be a cracker of a contest.
In the semi-final, Thiem could meet the veteran Spaniard Fernando Verdasco or Uruguay’s Pablo Cuevas. Both of these two players are capable of upsetting Thiem. Cuevas is in good form right now, having almost beaten Diego Schwartzman at Buenos Aires in a 3 hour 41 minute thriller at the Argentina Open. Verdasco meanwhile leads Thiem 4-1 in the head-to-head, and had defeated the Austrian at Rio back in 2018.
If Thiem manages to pass the stern semifinal test against either Verdasco or Cuevas, the 26-year-old might face Borna Coric or the second seed Dusan Lajovic in the final. Lajovic has been hot and cold so far this year, but one cannot underestimate his potential. Moreover, his best performances on the tour have been on clay; he won his first-ever ATP tour title at Umag last year, and was also a finalist at the Monte Carlo Masters (where he defeated Thiem en route to the title clash).
Thiem is the top-seeded player in Rio and in terms of talent and skill too he seems ahead of the rest of the field. But players like Lajovic, Verdasco, Cuevas and Coric are certainly capable of challenging him, and the Austrian would have to guard himself from complacency if he fancies winning his second title at Rio the coming Sunday.
Thiem would be hoping to record his first title of the year at Rio and in the process gain even more confidence and momentum as we approach the first Masters 1000 title of the year at Indian Wells - where the 26-year-old is the defending champion.