Friday sure was a Next-Gen kind of day in Rome, wasn’t it?
While there is inherent danger in putting forth any hot takes based on a single match, Dominic Thiem’s victory over Rafael Nadal in the Italian Open quarter-finals was definitely an “I have arrived” moment.
It was the third time in three tournaments that Thiem and Nadal have met. The first two came in finals. In the first one in Barcelona, the 23-year-old was out of gas and a little outclassed. In Madrid, he gave the Mallorcan a lot to handle, even in defeat. Friday in the Rome quarter-finals, he treed.
“It’s always such a tough thing to beat Rafa, in general and on clay probably even tougher. I knew I had to change something from Madrid and Barcelona. And my game plan went almost perfect today,” Thiem said. “I think he is always getting stronger as it goes deeper in the tournaments, but it doesn’t matter where, doesn’t matter which round. I’m really happy that I did it, and also to play that kind of a match.”
Nadal had a look afterwards that basically said, “Right, too good, kid. See you in Paris in best-of-five”.
Not the worst outcome
In context, this was a tournament Nadal really didn’t need to play, after he won 15 straight matches to take Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid, losing only two sets in the process. But he played.
He got more matches in, and stockpiled more ranking points. But Nadal also now gets the weekend off. And he doesn’t have to expend the mental and physical energy to try to win a fourth title this spring.
“It’s normal that one day you don’t feel perfect. If you are unlucky on that day, the opponent plays unbelievable. So tomorrow, I will be in Mallorca fishing or playing golf or doing another thing. That’s it,” Nadal told the media in Rome. “It’s obvious that I did not play my best match. I have been playing a lot. Madrid and Rome, back-to-back, after playing Barcelona and Monte-Carlo back-to-back, so it’s not easy after playing almost every day for the past four weeks.”
That doesn’t mean Nadal didn’t give it everything. And it also doesn’t mean Thiem wasn’t fully deserving. To play that sort of power game on clay, and maintain the level, is incredibly difficult to do.
Even though the 6-4, 6-3 win took nearly two hours, nearly 50 per cent of the points lasted five shots or less. That was the only category in which Nadal edged out his young rival – and barely at that. The longer the points went, the more they swung in Thiem’s favour. Against Nadal, that is an impressive stat.
Nadal’s 76 per cent first-serve effort meant he probably was not nearly as aggressive with that stroke as he needed to be, as indeed he had been in previous weeks.
Zverev vs. the big servers
The other Next-Gen encounter was the first-ever meeting between Alexander Zverev and Canadian Milos Raonic.
A hamstring issue has curtailed Raonic’s clay-court swing. But he looked impressive in dispatching both Tommy Haas and Thomas Berdych in straight sets. His winners-to-unforced ratios in both matches were off the charts.
Against Zverev, after recovering from being a break down twice in that first set, it was one-way traffic in a 7-6 (4), 6-1 Zverev victory.
The young German’s consistent power off both sides exposed Raonic’s movement. And he couldn’t make enough of an impact with his serve. Raonic served harder than Zverev – but barely harder. He was just 8-for-18 at net. And his 33 unforced errors were far too many.
After not losing his serve in the tournament, Raonic was up against it Friday. “I broke him four times, which is quite impressive, against a server like him,” he said. “I tried to mix up my position – sometimes be aggressive, sometimes try to defend.”
Now, the two young bucks have to do it again.
Zverev will face another huge serve in John Isner, the first American to reach the semifinals in Rome since Andy Roddick in 2008. He’ll have had plenty of practice after the Raonic match.
Thiem awaits the winner of a thunderstorm-suspended match between Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro.
“You beat such a great player and the next day again, you play again against a really tough opponent,” Thiem said.
Djokovic won the first set 6-1, but they were interrupted after three games in the second set as the stadium court was drowned.
The two resume at 1:30 p.m. Saturday afternoon. Thiem can sleep in, in anticipation of facing the winner at 8 p.m. Saturday evening.
Muguruza awakens in Rome
Overshadowed as always in these joint ATP-WTA Tour events, the women have most often gotten the early match on the Centrale court – when the stands are empty – and the late-night match.
So the energizing run by reigning French Open champion Garbiñe Muguruza has gone under the radar.
Muguruza lost her first match in Stuttgart, and her first match in Madrid. But in Rome, she had a good draw to the quarter-finals and found a way to beat No. 9 seed Venus Williams Friday night.
She will play No. 8 Elina Svitolina, who defeated slumping No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova Friday. No. 6 seed Simona Halep, fresh off her triumph in Madrid, has continued her good form. She will face No. 15 seed Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands.
A Halep – Muguruza final is probably the best that could be extracted from the Madrid draw, especially after Maria Sharapova lost early to Mirjana Lucic-Baroni.
Here’s the Saturday singles schedule:
Sunday’s women’s final will be first up at 1:30 p.m., with the men’s singles final not before 4 p.m. (CET)