Top-seeded Rafael Nadal improved his incredible all-time French Open record to 61-1 with a breezy 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 victory over up-and-coming opponent Dominic Thiem in the second round Thursday at Roland Garros.
Rafa Nadal is through 62 62 63 over Dominic Thiem. Nice effort from the 20-year-old and Rafa looking sharp to start the tournament. #RG14— Beyond The Baseline (@SI_BTBaseline) May 29, 2014
Although Nadal's quest for a fifth consecutive French Open title will unquestionably prove more difficult as the tournament continues, he appears to be in top form. Rafa has had his issues throughout the clay-court season, but he seemingly always finds a way to play to the best of his ability in Paris.
Perhaps the biggest key to Rafa's dominance Thursday was the fact that he had two days in between his first- and second-round matches. Not only did that give him time to rest his body, but it also gave him time to refine his game and make adjustments. Per ATPWorldTour.com:
I won this round, but it was a bit difficult because of the weather, but it was very important for me, because it gave me the opportunity of having two days' break so that I can practise. That's always positive. When you win, you're always happy. Of course, as always, I had ups and downs, and I could have played being a bit more aggressive.
That aggression was much more evident against Thiem as Nadal refused to rest on his laurels. He went for his shots and dictated play, which have been Nadal's calling cards for many years.
Even when Thiem did attempt to turn the tables, Nadal acted as a virtual brick wall by returning essentially everything his 20-year-old opponent could throw at him.
While former tennis star Pat Cash didn't give Thiem much of a chance against Nadal prior to the match, he felt as though it could be a learning experience for the young Austrian:
The king Nadal v the prince Thiem now @rolandgarros, too much for Thiem today I'm sure but great experience for the future top 10— Pat Cash (@TheRealPatCash) May 29, 2014
Thiem witnessed a clinical performance firsthand as Nadal jumped out to a 3-1 lead after some nervous moments in his opening service game. Rafa extended the lead to 5-1, which prompted Carole Bouchard of L'Equipe to point to Nadal as a measuring stick for rising players:
Rafael Nadal : best learning process for young ambitious guns ever. The "So You See How Long The Road Is" lesson. 5-1 vs Thiem.— Carole Bouchard (@carole_bouchard) May 29, 2014
Thiem did manage an impressive break of serve against Nadal with Rafa serving for the set, but he was unable to truly capitalize as he was broken right back. Nadal won the set 6-2, which prompted plenty of praise from analysts, including Neil Harman of The Times:
First set Nadal 6-2. Occasional shaft of brilliance from Thiem. Rafa strong as ever.— Neil Harman (@NeilHarmanTimes) May 29, 2014
BBC's Piers Newbery chimed in as well by crediting Thiem for a fairly well-played set, but chalking it up to Nadal simply being too tough to crack:
Nadal goes 6-2 up in 42mins, very impressive. Great hitting by Thiem but Nadal returning most with interest. It's almost sunny. #bbctennis— Piers Newbery (@piersnewbery) May 29, 2014
Nadal's superb play continued in the second set, although he did face a bit of adversity brought on by his own slow play. Rafa is known as perhaps the slowest player on tour, and it isn't uncommon for him to receive multiple time violations in a tournament.
According to Harman, Nadal went through quite a lengthy routine while on serve:
Nadal's prep to receive serve, two towels, scuffing lines, wiping arms, picking bum, wiping sweat, pulling up sweat bands. Theim waits....— Neil Harman (@NeilHarmanTimes) May 29, 2014
That ultimately led to a time violation, which gave Thiem break point, but Rafa almost routinely worked his way out of it to secure a hold, per Newbery:
Nadal faces break point, gets time violation, plays three great points to get out of trouble. Also rips an annoying thread from his shorts.— Piers Newbery (@piersnewbery) May 29, 2014
Thiem was unable to recover from that missed opportunity, as Nadal equaled his first-set showing with a 6-2 advantage in the second set. Per Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times:
Rafael Nadal was ready for the challenge, and is taking care of Thiem quite ruthlessly, up 6-2, 6-2. He has a way against one-handers. #RG14— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) May 29, 2014
After winning the first two sets with relative ease, Nadal had to deal with a bit more resistance in the third. In fact, Thiem picked up an early break and actually held a 3-1 lead, per Roland Garros on Twitter:
Unfortunately for Thiem, he was unable to weather the Nadal storm thereafter. Rafa proceeded to rip off five consecutive games as he pushed things into overdrive and propelled himself into the third round.
While Thiem was no match for Nadal Thursday, it is easy to see why many point to him as a potential top player in the future. He didn't look out of place against Rafa despite the scoreline, and there is little doubt that experience will make him an even better player moving forward.
As for Nadal, the march toward a ninth career French Open championship continues. All his matches won't seem as easy as his win over Thiem, but Rafa should be fairly safe over the next couple rounds.
A clash with either Leonardo Mayer or Teymuraz Gabashvili is on tap for the third round. Nadal has a combined record of 6-0 against them, and it is difficult to imagine either of them ousting Rafa.
How will Nadal fare in the 2014 French Open?
Provided Nadal can get past that challenge, a fourth-round encounter awaits against one of four lesser-known opponents, with Americans Jack Sock and Steve Johnson among that group. Nadal benefited from seeded players Nicolas Almagro and Tommy Haas retiring from the tournament, so he has a clear path to the quarterfinals.
The true test will start there, as a possible rematch of last year's final against David Ferrer could take place. If everything goes according to form, that would be followed by a semifinal against Andy Murray and final against Novak Djokovic.
That is a fairly difficult run of matches for the world's top player, but Nadal is used to facing and defeating all comers at Roland Garros. Perhaps building his confidence with some routine victories through the first few rounds will put Nadal in position to excel when the competition heats up.
There was a lot of concern surrounding Nadal entering the French Open due to the fact that he had three clay-court losses on his record, but it looks like he has flipped the switch.
It is tough to say how Nadal's performance against Thiem might translate against higher-ranked players, but Nadal should most definitely give himself a chance to win it all if he plays similarly in the coming rounds.
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