Top-seeded Rafael Nadal looked to get his game back on track Saturday at the Argentina Open, but he was upset by No. 5 Dominic Thiem in a three-set semifinal affair.
Rafa entered Buenos Aires on the heels of a first-round defeat to Fernando Verdasco at the Australian Open, and his first tuneup for the French Open ended in similar fashion, as he failed to get past a far less accomplished opponent.
While the 29-year-old star will not play in Sunday's final, unseeded Nicolas Almagro will, as he took down second-seeded David Ferrer in an all-Spanish battle in the other semifinal.
Here is a rundown of how all of Saturday's Argentina Open action played out, along with recaps and analysis for all three men's singles matches.
Saturday's Scores and Schedule
|Argentina Open Saturday Men's Singles Results and Schedule|
|Round||Winning Player||Losing Player||Score|
|Quarterfinals||(2) David Ferrer||(8) Pablo Cuevas||6-4, 1-6, 6-3|
|Semifinals||(5) Dominic Thiem||(1) Rafael Nadal||6-4, 4-6, 7-6(4)|
|Semifinals||Nicolas Almagro||(2) David Ferrer||6-4, 7-5|
Ferrer Takes Down Cuevas in Quarters
In a quarterfinal matchup that was completed Saturday after being stopped due to rain Friday, Ferrer defeated eighth-seeded Pablo Cuevas 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 to advance to a semifinal clash with Almagro later in the day.
Play resumed Saturday with Ferrer leading 4-2 in the first set, but after closing out the opener, he was pushed back on his heels by Cuevas, who was dominant in the second set.
Ferrer boasted a 2-0 career record against Cuevas and had never dropped a set to him entering Saturday's match, but he suddenly found himself on the brink of elimination.
The savvy veteran managed to dig deep and come through in the third set, however, as he so often does.
While Ferrer certainly didn't dominate the match statistically by any means, the biggest difference may have been on first serves, as the world's No. 6 player got 69 percent of his first serves in, while Cuevas only connected at a 58 percent rate.
Ferrer won the Argentina Open every year from 2012 through 2014, and with 12 career clay-court titles to his credit, he drew on that experience Saturday.
Thiem Upsets Nadal in Three Sets
Despite being down a match point to perhaps the greatest clay-court player in tennis history, Thiem picked up arguably the biggest win of his career Saturday with a 6-4, 4-6, 7-6(4) triumph over Nadal in the Argentina Open semifinals.
Rafa is a nine-time French Open champion and the defending Buenos Aires titlist, but Thiem wasn't intimidated, as the powerful Austrian never wilted.
At just 22 years of age, Thiem became one of the youngest players ever to beat the future Hall of Famer on clay, according to Ricky Dimon of The Grandstand:
Ricky Dimon @Dimonator
Dominic Thiem (22 yrs 5 mos) becomes 3rd youngest player ever to beat Nadal on clay. Youngest since Guillermo Coria in 2003 (Monte-Carlo).2016-2-13 20:39:49
Also, per Josh Meiseles of ATPWorldTour.com, it had been more than a decade since Nadal was last defeated by a player as young as Thiem on the red stuff:
Josh Meiseles @jmeistennis
Dominic Thiem ends Rafael Nadal's 47-match win streak on clay against players aged 22-under. First loss since Valencia 2005 to Igor Andreev.2016-2-13 20:52:53
The players were fairly even from a statistical perspective, as they each scored three breaks of serve, and only a few points separated them over the course of the match. But Thiem's power was certainly a difference-maker late in the match.
He jumped out to a 6-2 lead in the tiebreak by virtue of his big serve, and ultimately held on to take it 7-4.
According to Meiseles, Nadal hadn't lost a decisive tiebreaker on clay in 13 years until Thiem pulled off the feat Saturday:
Josh Meiseles @jmeistennis
That was Nadal's first defeat in a deciding tiebreak on clay since Bastad 2003 - lost to Lapentti. Went 4-0 since.2016-2-13 21:07:01
Nerves often tend to set in during big points for inexperienced players when facing legends like Nadal, but that simply didn't happen to Thiem.
Even when his fate appeared sealed in the third set when facing set point, he persevered and came out on top, which is something only two players had ever done against the lefty on clay previously, per Meiseles:
Josh Meiseles @jmeistennis
Players who have saved MP in beating Rafael Nadal on clay: David Ferrer, Nicolas Lapentti and Dominic Thiem.2016-2-13 21:21:41
Beating a player with credentials as impressive as Nadal's is certainly a major accomplishment for Thiem, but the result may have had as much to do with Rafa's struggles as it did with Thiem's success.
As pointed out by Ben Rothenberg of the New York Times, the three-hour match featured a great deal of sloppy play that saw both players fail to get into any type of discernible rhythm:
Ben Rothenberg @BenRothenberg
Truly awful match, and it ends with Thiem taking it 7-4 in a third set TB over Rafa Nadal. Don't let long scoreline sugarcoat this stinker.2016-2-13 20:41:33
Thiem figures to pick up a great deal of momentum regardless, but the bigger story coming out of the match is where Nadal stands currently.
Although he is still ranked fifth in the world, his form over the past year has been a far cry from the level of play he showed when winning 14 Grand Slam titles over the course of his career.
Winning the French Open used to be a lock for Rafa no matter what, as he won five straight from 2010 through 2014, but after falling short last year and already dropping a clay-court match this year, his prospects certainly look grim.
Age and a laundry list of injuries suffered over the years may finally be catching up with Nadal, but he still has three months to get things right before the big tourney at Roland Garros begins.
Almagro Takes Down Fatigued Ferrer
After playing more than two sets earlier in the day due to a Friday postponement, Ferrer entered his semifinal match with Almagro at a disadvantage. That manifested itself in the form of a 6-4, 7-5 victory, which broke a long streak of futility for Almagro against Ferrer.
According to Jeff Sackmann of TennisAbstract.com, Almagro entered Saturday having never beaten Ferrer despite facing him on 15 occasions:
If ever Almagro were to pull off the upset, however, his match with Ferrer at the Argentina Open was the perfect storm.
In addition to Ferrer being forced to finish his quarterfinal match on Saturday, Almagro entered the contest in fine form.
He pulled off a huge straight-set upset of France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals Friday, which undoubtedly gave him some momentum.
Even so, Almagro knew what he was up against, as evidenced by his comments prior to the tilt, per BA Tennis World:
"Rafa is Rafa and Ferrer has been in the top 10 for 147 years." - Nico Almagro, absolutely hilarious in press! https://t.co/pCo0rZyYBx2016-2-13 00:19:25
The fact Almagro had a good sense of humor regarding Ferrer may have helped him make the 16th time a charm Saturday, and one can only assume being the fresher player also played a role.
With top stars and Grand Slam contenders like Ferrer, Nadal and Tsonga now out of the picture, the people of Buenos Aires will be treated to a final that few could have expected between Almagro and Thiem.
Both are playing as well as they ever have with victories over big-name opponents, and a win by either of them could go a long way toward making them a sleeper to make a run at the French Open.
Almagro is a 30-year-old veteran who has now reached 22 career finals on clay, which means he is likely the player to beat Sunday, although neutralizing Thiem's power won't be easy, as Nadal already found out.
Parity in men's tennis has been absent for quite some time, but even though the likes of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray didn't take part in the Argentina Open, the way the tournament has played out lends some hope to less heralded players moving forward.
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