Rafael Nadal seeks his tenth career title in Barcelona as he battles Dominic Thiem for the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell title. Nadal has beaten the Austrian in two of their three previous meetings with all three taking place on clay.
(2) Rafael Nadal vs (4) Dominic Thiem
Nadal has again been the most consistent performer at a tournament with the Spaniard winning in straight sets over all four of his opponents this week. In the quarterfinals, Rafa against flashed a strong serve and solid ground game in dispatching Horacio Zeballos 6-3, 6-3. Nadal fought off all five break points that he faced, winning 77 percent of his first serve points. Over the last three rounds, he’s won over 80 percent of his first serve points. The Spaniard has been broken just twice on nine break chances all tournament.
Thiem had an up and down match against top seed Andy Murray on Saturday. Thiem secured his first win over Murray in three tries by a final of 6-2, 3-6, 6-4. Thiem looked dominant through the first set and six games of the second as he won more than 80 percent of his first serve points. Murray had trouble getting break chances off of Thiem until seeing one late in the second that he took advantage of en route to winning the set.
Thiem looked down and out in the third after being broken in the opening game, but rediscovered his forehand that carried him throughout the match as he would break Murray three times in the final set to score the win. The Austrian wound up winning just over 70 percent of his first serve points, broken four times on eight chances. To his credit, he did break Murray six times on ten chances.
The King of Clay is Back
For most of 2017, I believe that Nadal has been the second most consistent performer outside of Roger Federer. Until last week in Monte Carlo, all he was missing in his comeback was a title. He took care of that and looks primed for a shot at scoring titles in successive weeks. Nadal’s determination has been on display since the Australian Open as you’ve had the feeling that he is out to prove himself as if he were an 18-year-old searching for his first Grand Slam.
Rafa is a perfect 9-0 on clay this season and has not lost on dirt since Novak Djokovic bet him in the Rome quarterfinals last year. That is a span of eleven matches if you throw out the walkover loss to Granollers at the French Open when he pulled out due to injury. No matter the surface, Nadal has brought back his trademark work ethic and grinding style that has pushed him to a 28-5 mark this season with three of those losses to Federer.
On clay, he’s worked everything according to the old Nadal game plan. Get opponents into rallies and work them all over the court. His topspin forehand has been on-point and his serve has been steady and at-times near its best level that I can remember. There’s a definite aura of invincibility surrounding the Spaniard again, especially on his preferred surface. His confidence is about as high as it can get – especially when Federer isn’t taking part in a tournament.
Serve is the Word
Their last meeting came in Monte Carlo last year, where Nadal pulled off a somewhat miraculous 7-5, 6-3 win. Why miraculous? He had to fight off 17 break points in that match and was able to save all but two of those break chances. It frustrated Thiem who was broken four times on eight chances. Most days, you’d expect anyone who gets nearly 20 break opportunities to take better advantage. Credit to Rafa for the fight, but Thiem will always lament what could have been with even one extra break out of all of those chances.
When Thiem beat Nadal in Buenos Aires early in 2016, he converted on three of eight break chances. He still just barely won in the final, coming out on top in a third set tiebreak. Their first meeting was at Roland Garros in 2014, where Nadal rolled in second round play 6-2, 6-2, 6-3. A key in all three meetings has been those break chances and who has come up bigger in those key points. Nadal has done the better work for the most part and that’s been his m.o. this week in the few times he’s been challenged.
That is a starting point for Thiem if he’s going to pull off the win. His serve must be consistent. He had that against Murray early and often, but there was a lull that allowed the Scot back into the match. Against Rafa on this surface, that lull would be deadlier. Nadal’s serve has been more solid than Murray has shown most of the season, so any breaks secured by the Spaniard could spell a quick doom in a set for Thiem.
The Imitation Game
Off the ground, Murray’s tactics against Thiem could lend some help to Nadal if he chooses to employ them. Murray made a point to come to net a lot against Thiem in an effor to avoid letting Thiem unload on his ground strokes from the back of the court. Nadal’s not huge on coming to the net, but it was a good strategy that worked well when Murray was hitting his volleys. I don’t expect Rafa to do it as much as Murray, but he would do well to mix it up in an effort to make Thiem think.
Taking time away from Thiem to set up those power groundies goes a long way in helping his opponents win. When Murray struggled the most against the Austrian, he was allowing the 23-year-old time to set up in the middle of the court. From there, Thiem was free to blast his forehand and backhand for winners. Nadal will need to do a more consistent job of moving Thiem around the court to avoid letting him stay in his comfort zone.
For Thiem, working to Rafa’s backhand is always going to be the better plan than letting Nadal whip that topspin forehand around the court. Any time Thiem gets in backhand to backhand exchanges, he should win those more often than not. Nadal will want those forehand to forehand exchanges, but will have to be weary again of court positioning or Thiem can tee off.
The Pig’s Bottom Line
This could be a tremendous match. Thiem has played very well for the most part this week and Nadal has been in vintage form on clay. The big challenge here for Thiem is going to be finding some success early. This is not the same Nadal he’s played in any of their previous matches. This version of Nadal is better, so Thiem must be better. That means consistent and big first serves for the Austrian and solid serving in key moments on break points.
Rafa meanwhile simply needs to keep on keepin’ on. Serve like he’s served for the majority of the week and grind away in ground rallies. It’s on Thiem to upset that rhythm. I think his power off the ground can do that, but I’m not certain that he can do that consistently enough against this version of Nadal. I think Thiem needs an off-day from Rafa to win and those days have not come very often lately. Thiem will be competitive, I think, but Nadal will walk away the victor.
Prediction: Nadal wins in three sets