Dominic Thiem interview: Toppling Rafael Nadal as French Open champion the ultimate goal
Austrian world No 5 has overcome a difficult start to the season to win Indian Wells and the Barcelona Open, which has only increased expectations ahead of Roland Garros
Dominic Thiem describes the phenomenon of Rafael Nadal on clay as “non plus ultra” – an extreme point that no man can reach beyond.
But the Austrian is reminding himself that he has also become tough to defeat on the surface as he heads to this month’s French Open brimming with confidence.
Since the start of 2016, Thiem is the only player to beat Nadal on clay at least once each year.
Fresh off of his biggest clay title in Barcelona last month, where he didn’t drop a set and took out Nadal in the semi-finals, Thiem cut a relaxed figure in the game room at the Caja Magica in Madrid on Sunday.
“If I see my results on clay the last years, they are very, very good,” Thiem, 25, said as he discussed his credentials on the red dirt.
“Two times finals here [in Madrid], two semis and a final Roland Garros, and I know myself how tough it is to get to these deep stages.
“I’m trying to stay relaxed because it can happen that I lose here first round or second round and still play well because these tournaments are so strong, and Roland Garros is the same.
“I try to tell myself that I’m tough to beat on this surface and if I’m 100 per cent, and if I’m fully pumped, then it’s difficult to beat me. That’s how I approach these tournaments.”
Thiem and Roger Federer were the only players to win more than one title this season before Sunday when they were joined by Cristian Garin and Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Thiem upset Federer in the Indian Wells final to lift his first Masters 1000 trophy in March, and the progress he has made on hard courts – he reached his first non-clay grand slam quarter-final at the US Open last year – has only added to his confidence.
“I think Indian Wells was just amazing because I came from a very tough period. I had just split up with my coach,” said Thiem, who began 2019 with a 3-4 win-loss in his first four events.
“I somehow freed myself and I won the tournament. I didn’t know how or why that happened, so that was amazing - my first 1000 title, I didn’t expect it.”
It should come as no surprise that winning Roland Garros represents Thiem's biggest goal this season. Clinching any grand slam would do, he says, but he is aware that the French Open is where his chances are highest.
Defending and 11-time champion Nadal is likely to be one of Thiem's biggest obstacles and the Spaniard has won each of their three meetings at Roland Garros in straight sets, including their first ever meeting and last year's final.
Less than two years after their first encounter, Thiem levelled the rivalry at one-win each by beating Nadal in Buenos Aires on clay. Nadal has won eight of their 12 matches in total, although Thiem has won two of the past four.
“Mentally it was very important to beat him in Buenos Aires even though I knew he wasn’t playing his best tennis," Thiem said. "But every time you beat the top guys it’s very important mentally because if you do it once, you can also do it more times.
“I try to go into these matches against these guys with 100 per cent belief to win. That is the most important.”
Even so, Thiem is aware that defeating Nadal at tour events is one thing - overcoming him in a best-of-five match in Paris is a whole different beast.
However, there are many question marks surrounding the Mallorcan this year as he returns from another knee injury that forced him to withdraw ahead of his semi-final in Indian Wells.
The 17-time major champion has lost twice on clay so far this season, in the semi-finals of Monte Carlo and Barcelona, and it is the first time that Nadal has not won a title in the first four months of a season since 2004.
“I don’t think it’s so much different. It’s already really amazing how he plays after taking some time off after being injured. The further the clay court season goes, the better he will play,” Thiem said.
“It’s still something different to play him in Roland Garros, on Philippe Chatrier [Court] in best-of-five, than in any other tournament best-of-three. That’s one big step.
“Of course I will try everything to win that tournament and maybe beat him there, but it’s very tough. I was pretty far from that until now but it’s time to improve.
“But also I’m a better player than last year so that’s what I’m counting on the most.”
Updated: May 7, 2019 08:40 AM