As Rafael Nadal tried for número cinco in Madrid Sunday, solving Dominic Thiem proved a far more daunting task than it had been in Barcelona.
Two weeks ago, after a close start, the clay maestro took care of the 23-year-old Austrian 6-4, 6-1. This time, on the bigger stage of a Masters 1000-level event, Nadal had his hands full in what turned out to be a hard-fought, high quality 7-6 (8), 6-4 victory.
This is the fifth title for Nadal in Madrid, a place he has never truly embraced. That’s mostly because of the big variance in conditions with Roland Garros caused by the altitude. And Nadal is a stickler for the details.
But given the wave he’s riding, any nitpicks the Spaniard may have with the conditions could quickly be cast aside.
No. 4 secure – should he pass on Rome?
Nadal will slide past Roger Federer and into the No. 4 spot in the rankings on Monday. That spot looks secure until the French Open; the ranking points from this week’s Masters 1000 tournament in Rome already have been deducted.
Federer isn’t playing Rome. The challengers behind Nadal, including Canadian Milos Raonic, can’t catch up.
The No. 4 seeding is a key slot. At No. 5, a player is guaranteed to meet one of the top four as early as the quarterfinals – assuming both players get there. At No. 4, there is an extra round’s grace.
A perfect 15-0 on the European clay, there therefore isn’t much incentive for Nadal to play Rome. He certainly doesn’t need more matches. The way he is playing, and moving, he might well go deep into the week.
Beyond seeking to add another title to his already illustrious resumé – and, let’s face it, playing tennis is really fun when you’re winning – he may well consider he’s had enough preparation and skip it. But that’s to be determined.
Unlike Federer, Nadal has never made a major priority to schedule rest when appropriate. He only knows one speed. He hasn’t yet made the transition to the “I’m 30 now, I can’t quite do what I used to do” club.
Still, after the match, Nadal declared his intention to play Rome. He said it was a very important event, and he would have a few days to rest before taking the court again.
Masters still a virtual monopoly
If Nadal does pull out, the player who would most benefit would be … Thiem. The No. 8 seed is in the same quarter of the Rome draw with Nadal.
For Thiem, who defeated Nadal on clay in Buenos Aires last year after the Spaniard had match points, it was another breakout effort. He stacked up extremely favorably with the finest dirtballer of all time on his home soil. The Austrian stayed with Nadal for so much of the match, needing to go for more risk with his shots and making plenty of them.
When the rallies were nine shots or less, the two were virtually even. Thiem even had a slight lead. Once the rallies hit 10 strokes, Nadal had a 20-8 edge. That, essentially, was the difference in the match.
— Rafa Nadal (@RafaelNadal) May 14, 2017
Thiem is just the latest young gun to try valiantly but fail to win a Masters 1000 title. The “Big Four” of Nadal, Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have won 24 of the last 25. They’ve won 37-of-40 since 2013, and 75-of-85 since 2008.
All eyes on the draw
On Monday, Thiem be No. 7 in the ATP Tour rankings. That means that unless something cataclysmic happens in Rome, the Austrian will be the so-called “player to avoid” in the upper reaches of the men’s singles draw.
Two years ago, Nadal was seeded No. 6 at the French Open and not at the top of his game. He still was the man the top four seeds wanted to avoid. The draw ceremony, which Nadal attended as defending champion, was as tense as could be. Everyone wondered if Novak Djokovic could possibly be the one to draw him as a potential quarter-final opponent in the year that was, to that point, the Serb’s best chance to win his first French Open title.
That’s exactly what happened. And both did get there. Djokovic won that match in straight sets, but Stan Wawrinka snuck through from the bottom half of the draw and won the tournament.
Thiem has company this time around. If Federer plays – his fans still breathlessly await confirmation – he, too, will be one to watch as the No. 5 seed.
Draw ceremonies are typically pretty dry stuff. This year, there will be even more suspense.