Can Dominic Thiem Halt Rafael Nadal’s French Open Dominance?
The dust has settled on the Australian Open after Novak Djokovic muscled past Dominic Thiem in five absorbing sets to get his hands on a record-extending eighth crown.
While another Grand Slam chapter has closed, the French Open will be the scene for the second major of the season in May where Rafael Nadal will be hoping to celebrate in trademark style by biting the handle of the Coupe des Mousquetaires for the 13th time.
While Nadal's dominance in Paris has been undeniable, Thiem may well have something to say on the matter and perhaps he is best placed to dethrone the Spaniard.
Third Time Lucky?
Thiem may not want to be reminded that he has lost all three of the Grand Slam singles finals he has contested. On the red dirt at Roland Garros, he was defeated two years on the trot by Nadal.
The Austrian has shown over the past 12 months he can compete with the 'Big Three'. Prior to his Australian Open final defeat, he had won four of his past five clashes with Djokovic.
Against Nadal, they have split their past six meetings. However, Thiem memorably disposed of Nadal in straight sets in the semi-finals of the Barcelona Open last year where the 26-year-old produced an impeccable display and Nadal couldn't handle his raw power.
At the time of writing, Thiem is back up to fourth in the ATP world rankings and he is a mere 85 points adrift of Federer in third. What sets Thiem apart is his skill sets as he is one of the best exponents of the single-handed backhand on the tour.
His forehand is crunching and when you factor in his kick serve as well as his improved volleying, Thiem is virtually the complete player.
At Home On Clay
It's important to note that while Thiem is fast transitioning into an all-rounder, clay is the surface he still feels most comfortable on.
With 10 of his 16 ATP titles coming on the red dirt, this illustrates the point perfectly. As far as the French Open goes, his first final defeat against Nadal in 2018 was a steep learning curve.
Opportunities were scarce as he broke just once and he only won 67 per cent of his first-serve points compared to Nadal's 82. The world number two was comprehensive in all facets of his game and his 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 victory demonstrated the gulf in class between the two players on that day.
Thiem, left, had to make do with the runners-up prize at the 2019 French Open (© PA Images)
Fast forward 12 months, and while the outcome was the same, Thiem managed to pick up a set. Both Nadal and Djokovic have pointed out in their acceptance speeches after the French and Australian Open finals respectively that Thiem is on the precipice of clinching a maiden tennis major.
The finer details in these matches have proved to be very small, but they are the difference between the chasing pack and gatecrashing the 'Big Three' party.
Time On His Side
The statistics from the 'Big Three' are alarming. Djokovic, Nadal and Federer have shared the last 13 Slams between them and the Serbian, who is back to the summit of the rankings, has spent 276 weeks at the top – 34 weeks short of Federer's record.
While the superlative trident have shown no signs of slowing down, one thing on Thiem's side is time.
Yes, Djokovic and Nadal may have both won five Grand Slam titles since turning 30, but Thiem is in his pomp.
Although he has been the nearly man, he should take inspiration from the fact that Andy Murray lost his first four major finals before he made the breakthrough.
Thiem's training during the off-season has stood him in good stead and there's no obvious flaw to his game.
Being patient as always will be key. Nadal may be the short-priced favourite with Bet365 at 10/11 to retain the French Open, but Thiem is knocking on the door.
Sooner rather than later, it will open for him.
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