“You don’t like the good tennis,” said a frustrated Rafael Nadal to the chair umpire when he was given a time violation for taking too long to serve in the second set of his Australian Open quarter-final against Dominic Thiem.
The two points before that were 18 and 19 shots and he was fighting to capture every point like it was saving a match point. (He did that too, later.) Displeased and more rattled than we have seen the world No 1 in recent times, he won the next two points and the game.
The call from the chair to start the shot clock right after a gruelling rally was debatable, but the tennis was, without question, good. Oh, so good.
For four hours and 10 minutes, Thiem and Nadal battled their hearts out in shoulder-popping, lung-busting rallies in a match that seemed like a boxing bout without the animosity. The scintillating strokes were finished with vicious winners, the gallant groundstrokes were swatted back with brutality and mistakes were pounced upon with a ruthlessness so unlike their off-court personalities. In the end, it was Nadal who blinked as the 26-year-old Austrian reached his first hard-court Grand Slam semi-final with a 7-6(3), 7-6(4), 4-6, 7-6(6) win.
A match with three tiebreaks is a good enough indication of the quality of tennis and competition, but Thiem’s play was more picturesque than the close scoreline can describe.
More Rafa than Rafa himself
As the commentators said, it felt like Nadal was playing a mirror image of himself… but a younger, faster version with a one-handed backhand. For most of the four sets, it was Thiem pushing from side-to-side, putting back that extra ball and capturing the point by pure force. It was as if Theim was outdoing Nadal at being Nadal.
The Spaniard has made his bread and butter of dismantling the one-handed backhand with his topspin forehand. But against Thiem’s bludgeoning backhand, he had no answer. Add to that an inside-out forehand that functioned as a cannon and the combined effect blew Nadal off the court.
The winners flying off the Austrian’s racquet (65 to Nadal’s 49) were a heady mix of skill, smarts and strength. Starting from as behind the baseline as Nadal does, Thiem threaded the needle with precision and painted the lines with power. The down-the-line shots had the perfection of a surgeon and when he opened the court with it, he was able to deal the finishing blow without a second thought.
But when he wasn’t getting the winners, he was still competing for every ball with burning intensity. For once, Nadal was on the defensive in long rallies and every extra ball he put in was returned back to him. The baseline exchanges he could bully in slower conditions were suddenly about him playing catch up.
Uncharacteristically, Nadal was making unforced errors too, the kind that he is more used to inducing from his opponent. Double faults and dumping shots into the net is not what you usually see from the 33-year-old.
He had a set point in the first, was three points from winning the second set and two points away from forcing a decider in the fifth. He actually broke Thiem serving for the match. But the fact that a player like could not force open the door after thrusting a crowbar in was an indication of just how steady Thiem stayed mentally and physically.
He stuck to his game plan, took the bull by the horns. He made the plays, took the risks and won his points, not waiting for the opponent to make a mistake.
The bravery and creativity was rewarded as he beat the Spaniard at a Grand Slam for the first time in six tries. It was a remarkable turnaround from the fifth-set loss in the 2018 US Open quarters after winning the first set 6-0.
But as daring as his play was, Thiem was by no means fearless. Being broken early in both sets, he first broke Nadal serving for the first set and the recovered from being broken while serving for the match and squandering a mini-break in the tiebreak.
He alluded to his mental demons, quoting Roger Federer. But with an intensity that would scare the devil, he banished those demons as he did the short balls.
Having a strategy is one thing and executing it against the world No 1 is a whole other. But Thiem stuck to his gun, big ones at that. The 26-year-old is slowly beginning to find his feet on hard courts after years of being called a clay grinder.
He beat Federer in the Indian Wells final and at the ATP Finals, he beat Djokovic, Federer (again) en route the summit clash where he lost narrowly to Stefanos Tistispas. Now with wins over The Big Three on hardcourts (and a 7-2 record against Federer, Djokovic and Nadal in the past 12 months), the ATP Finals runner-up is finally shaping into the versatile warrior he has long promised to be.