The world No. 1 is gone, but arguably the two most in-form clay-courters in the game will be squaring off in the final of the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell on Sunday. It will be Rafael Nadal vs. Dominic Thiem for the title after Thiem took down top-ranked Andy Murray in the semis.
The ninth-ranked Austrian had previously been 0-2 lifetime against Murray, but he now owns wins at the expense of both Murray and Nadal. The head-to-head series with the latter stands at 2-1 in favor of Nadal and all three of their previous encounters have come on clay. A 2013 French Open meeting went Nadal’s way via a 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 decision and they split a pair of 2016 showdowns; Thiem prevailed 6-4, 4-6, 7-6(4) in the Buenos Aires semis before Nadal got the job done 7-5, 6-3 in Monte-Carlo.
Given the relative slumps of Murray and Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer’s current clay-court absence, and the way Nadal and Thiem are performing on clay, this is a potential preview of a Roland Garros semi or even final. Unsurprisingly, Nadal is perfect on the red stuff this season. The 14-time Grand Slam champion triumphed for a 10th time in Monte-Carlo last week and so far in Barcelona he has cruised to straight-set victories over Rogerio Dutra Silva, Kevin Anderson, Hyeon Chung, and Horacio Zeballos.
Thiem in 2017 has, for the most part, been somewhere in between his 2016 pre-Wimbledon and post-Wimbledon self. It is good enough to be No. 4 in the race to London even if he loses on Sunday and No. 3 if he wins. The 23-year-old is 23-9 for the season and 10-1 on clay, including a title in Rio de Janeiro and wins this week over Kyle Edmund, Dan Evans, Yuichi Sugita, and Murray.
“It’s not a surprise that Dominic is in the final,” Nadal commented. “He is one of the best in the world, and he loves clay. At the beginning of the tournament, he was already one of the main favorites to be in the final. He is a player with a lot of power. He imposes a lot on his shots, and if you let him be comfortable, it’s almost impossible to stop him.”
“To get two matches in a row against two of the best players ever is big for my game,” Thiem noted.
It is true that this is perfect French Open preparation for Thiem regardless of the outcome, and he is one of the few players who has the clay-court game that can beat Nadal even if Nadal plays well. But the No. 4 seed struggled to maintain his best level for more than a set against Murray–who faded in a rocky third set for both men–and doing so for at least two sets against Nadal is even tougher.
There are no secrets in this one: both players will look to dominate rallies with their forehands while pounding away at the other’s backhand. Thiem’s one-hander is more likely to break down first amidst the pressure of Nadal’s heavy topspin and lefty serve out wide.
Pick: Nadal in 3