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Rafael Nadal vs Dominic Thiem: A look back at their clay-court rivalry ahead of 2018 French Open final

Andrew Hendrie in ATP Tour 9 Jun 2018
  • Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem clash in the 2018 French Open final on Sunday
  • We look back at their history on clay - of which all nine of their previous meetings have come on
Dominic Thiem and Rafael Nadal (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem will clash for the 10th time when they square off for the 2018 French Open title - and ahead of the big battle, we take a look back their previous encounters.

Quite incredibly, all nine of Nadal and Thiem’s past meetings have come on clay. Nadal leads the head-to-head 6-3, but Thiem won their last showdown in the Madrid Masters quarter-finals last month. Nadal has won both of the finals they’ve contested, while eight of their nine matches have been decided by a straight sets scoreline.

Keep reading as we take a trip down memory lane with the Nadal vs Thiem rivalry so far…

2014: French Open R64 - Nadal def. Thiem 6-2 6-2 6-3

Fittingly, the first time Nadal and Thiem played each other was at Roland Garros back in 2014. The Austrian was ranked No. 70 and had earned direct entry into a Grand Slam main draw for the first time. After taking out Paul-Henri Mathieu in the opening round, Thiem found himself face to face with the King of Clay for the first time - and while the talent was undoubtedly there, he was no match for Nadal as the Spaniard prevailed in straight sets. Nevertheless, Thiem impressed - so much so that it was the beginning of the ‘future French Open champion’ predictions….

Nadal and Thiem at the French Open in 2014 (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

2016: Buenos Aires semi-finals - Thiem def. Nadal 6-4 4-6 7-6(4)

Thiem scored his first win over Nadal in the Argentina Open semi-finals in Buenos Aires - but it must be said, this match came during on of Nadal’s toughest ever periods on tour - and certainly his worst season, with 2016 the only year the Spaniard failed to make a Grand Slam quarter-final since 2004. Reeling from a first round Australian Open exit, Nadal decided to play the Golden Swing, but Thiem was ready for the challenge, claiming just his second top 10 win as he emerged triumphant in a third set tiebreak, saving a match point along the way.

“It was an amazing match for me,” Thiem said. “It was very tight from the beginning. It’s special to play against the big guys, and to beat one is a dream come true. In the third set, Nadal really stepped up but I was able to counter-attack and play incredible shots.”

2016: Monte-Carlo Masters R16 - Nadal def. Thiem 7-5 6-3

Much hype surrounded the third meeting between the pair after Thiem had secured a huge upset over Nadal in Buenos Aires just a couple of months prior. Nadal however was able to turn the tables on European clay, despite not being at his best, putting the young ‘Prince of Clay’ in his place with a 7-5 6-3 triumph in the Round of 16. It was a fiercely contested first set, but Nadal survived it - and saved a total of 15 break points throughout the match - to avenge his defeat in Argentina. Nadal described the win as his best clay match of the year to date and went on to capture a ninth Monte-Carlo Masters crown soon after.

2017: Barcelona final - Nadal def. Thiem 6-4 6-1

The first of four big battles on the dirt in 2017, Nadal secured his 10th Barcelona Open title by upstaging Thiem in a one-sided final. Just one week after winning his 10th Monte-Carlo crown, Nadal emulated the feat in Barcelona, dropping just five games to the Austrian as he continued to set new records left, right and centre on European clay.

Nadal with the Barcelona trophy in 2017 (Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)

"I'm very satisfied. It's been an emotional day for me. Playing in front of my crowd and my club and winning a 10th title here is something that's impossible to even dream of. It's very special and unique,” said Nadal. “I played my best match of the tournament this afternoon against probably the toughest opponent in the tournament, so I'm very happy."

2017: Madrid Masters final - Nadal def. Thiem 7-6(8) 6-4

Nadal and Thiem wouldn’t have to wait long to renew their rivalry as the pair squared off inside the Caja Magica for the 2017 Madrid Masters title. Thiem was playing his first ATP Masters 1000 final as he continued to rise through the ranks and re-affirm his reputation as arguably the second best player on clay at the time, and although he managed to keep the scoreline much closer this time, he still wasn’t able to get over the line, with Nadal again coming through a tight first set before closing out the match in straights for his 52nd title on clay. Again, Nadal was ‘satisfied!’

“Today is a day to be satisfied, to be happy and to have this trophy,” Nadal said. “This is a very emotional period of the season. I really enjoy these tournaments. I just try to go for all of them. I try to compete. I did well in Monte-Carlo and Barcelona, and also here. I hope to do the same in Rome.”

2017: Rome Masters quarter-final - Thiem def. Nadal 6-4 6-3

Unfortunately for Nadal, he couldn’t do the same in Rome. Granted, it’s almost impossible (even for Nadal) to win every single title on clay in the lead-up to the French Open, and Thiem was the man who was able to stop him completing a sweep of Monte-Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome and the French Open at the Foro Italico. The Austrian had clearly learned from his previous two defeats to Nadal that summer and implemented a much more aggressive game plan - and he executed to perfection as he came away with a straight sets victory, ending Nadal’s 17-match winning streak on clay.

Thiem celebrates his Rome win over Nadal in 2017 (Photo by TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)

"I knew that if it goes in, everything, maybe I have a chance. If not, maybe I also lose easy. But today was one of these days where I really felt the ball great on the racquet, and a lot of risky shots went in. "It was a very, very good performance and I think probably one of my best matches."

2017: French Open semi-finals - Nadal def. Thiem 6-3 6-4 6-0

Confident after his straight sets dispatch of Nadal in Rome, was Thiem ready to do it in a Grand Slam over best of five? The answer was an emphatic no. Nadal delivered a soul-crushing performance, gradually picking Thiem apart over the first two sets before producing a third set bagel as he firmly restored parity in his growing rivalry with the Austrian. Thiem was appearing in his second straight semi-final at Roland Garros, but after losing in straight sets to Novak Djokovic the previous year, it was more of the same 12 months later as Nadal proved far too good when it mattered most. Nadal of course would go on to win his 10th Roland Garros title.

2018: Monte-Carlo Masters quarter-final - Nadal def. Thiem 6-0 6-2

Both men were returning from respective injury problems as Nadal and Thiem continued their annual rivalry on the key battlegrounds of Europe’s clay-court season. Nadal hadn’t played a tour-level event since retiring in the Australian Open quarter-finals with a hip problem, while Thiem suffered an ankle injury in Indian Wells in March and was easing his way back into competition. Thiem managed to overcome Novak Djokovic in the previous round (who himself was also trying to regain top form after a long injury layoff), but he was seemingly gassed for his quarter-final clash with Nadal as the Spaniard dropped just two games in a dominant performance.

“It has been a great result for me, but it isn’t a normal result,” said Nadal. “He's one of the best players of the world, especially on clay. “Here, I think I played great. I played so well this afternoon, playing very aggressive in general terms, backhand, forehand, serve. I'm defending well, returning well. It has been a great day for me, and a very good result against a very difficult rival. I’m sorry for him, because he's a good friend. It was a tough score, of course. But I know he is going to be fighting for every title during the clay court season.”

2018 Madrid Masters quarter-finals - Thiem def. Nadal 7-5 6-3

But how quickly the tide can turn. Just a few weeks later it was Thiem who was celebrating as he became the only man to beat Nadal on clay in each of the last two seasons, producing a thunderous performance to derail the King of Clay in straight sets in the Madrid quarter-finals. Nadal doesn’t like the quicker conditions in Madrid as much as say Monte-Carlo or Roland Garros, but Thiem once again executed his muscular and aggressive brand of tennis to perfection, slaying Nadal by a 7-5 6-3 scoreline and ending the Spaniard’s streaks of 21 straight matches won on clay (along with 50 straight sets). The Austrian would go on to make his first Masters 1000 final, but he couldn’t take home the title, losing to Alexander Zverev.

Thiem and Nadal shake hands in Madrid (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

“I had to play an extraordinary match, and that's what I did," said Thiem. "It takes a really good match to beat Rafa on clay, but I think a very important thing was that I went in with the attitude that I can beat him. Obviously, two weeks ago in Monte-Carlo, he killed me love and two. It was very important I went into the match with a positive attitude, with an attitude to win.”

2018: French Open final - Rafael Nadal (1) vs Dominic Thiem (7)

And that brings us to the present day, with Nadal and Thiem set to square off in their first meeting in a Grand Slam final. Nadal is targeting a record 11th Roland Garros crown and has a 85-2 record at the tournament, with his only two defeats coming in 2009 and 2015. Thiem meanwhile is attempting to become just the second player from Austria to win a Grand Slam title and join Marin Cilic as the only major champion outside of the ‘Big Five’ since 2009. Thiem has proven his ability to beat Nadal in best of three sets, but he is yet to win a set in a best of five contest - can the Austrian enforcer produce the match of his life to prevail, or will Nadal secure an 11th French Open title and continue to rewrite the history books?

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Rafael Nadal vs Dominic Thiem: A look back at their clay-court rivalry ahead of 2018 French Open final

Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem will clash for the 10th time when they square off for the 2018 French Open title - and ahead of the big battle, we take a look back their previous encounters.

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