Together they have played some of the most memorable matches of the past two seasons, and every time they stare across the net from each other, it’s blockbuster tennis.
Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem will meet for a 12th time on Saturday in the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell semi-finals (Nadal leads 8-3; 7-3 on clay). The Spaniard has never lost a Barcelona semi-final (11-0) and is going for a record 12th Barcelona title this week. Nadal remains the only man to have won a tournament 11 times (Monte-Carlo, Barcelona, Roland Garros).
Thiem, meanwhile, is looking to extend a streak of his own and join one of the most elite clubs in tennis. The Austrian has beaten Nadal on clay the past three seasons (2018 Madrid, 2017 Rome, 2016 Buenos Aires), and if he beats Nadal again on Saturday, he’ll become only the second player to have defeated the Spaniard four times on clay, joining a club of one: Novak Djokovic.
“It’s always one of the biggest challenges possible in tennis, to play Rafa on clay. To play him at a tournament which he’s won already 11 times, with his own crowd at his back, with his Spanish crowd. It’s going to be unbelievably tough,” Thiem said. “But we’ve had some great matches in the past, and I think we are both playing quite well, so I hope that’s the same case tomorrow and I think we could expect a good match.”
Both looked convincing in their quarter-finals. Thiem spent 63 minutes taking the first set from Brasil Open champion Guido Pella of Argentina, but then worked quicker in the second to advance 7-5, 6-2. Nadal was pushed in both sets by the big-hitting German Jan-Lennard Struff but moved on 7-5, 7-5.
The World No. 2 should be particularly pleased with how he’s improved throughout the tournament. Before Nadal lost his opening set against Leonardo Mayer, he had won 30 consecutive sets at the ATP 500 event.
He was disappointed with how he “competed” against Mayer, but, in straight-sets wins against David Ferrer and Struff, the Spaniard has upped his first-serve percentage and played with more energy, inviting the home crowd to roar behind him.
How well Thiem is able to dictate play – think blistering one-handed backhands and crosscourt forehand winners – should tell the story of their semi-final. The Austrian played two of the best matches of his life against Nadal in Rome in 2017 and Madrid last year. Thiem was the only player to beat Nadal on clay those seasons.
He’s catching up to Nadal on hard courts as well, as shown by their marathon five-set and four-hour, 49-minute quarter-final at last year’s US Open. But if Thiem is a shade off his best, and Nadal can raise his defensive game a notch, it could be the Spaniard, despite his slow start in Barcelona, moving onto his 12thfinal.
“I will try the same tactics like I did in Madrid and two years ago in Rome, to be very aggressive, of course. That’s the only way to beat Rafa, to be very aggressive and to play a lot of winners,” Thiem said. “But of course here I think it’s a little bit tougher here than in Madrid. Madrid are great conditions for me, a little bit of altitude and I think even though he’s won it five times, it’s not his favorite tournament I guess. But I’ll try similar [tactics] tomorrow.”
It’s also tougher to beat Nadal in the Barcelona semi-finals because it’s never be done. In the semi-final and final stages of the ATP 500 event, Nadal is 46-1 in sets and 22-0 in matches.
Did You Know?
Nadal is 421-37 (.919) on clay during the past 18 seasons.