Friday Preview: Nadal, Thiem Headline

John McEnroe deems beating Rafael Nadal on clay as the toughest challenge in tennis. Dominic Thiem knows exactly what that feels like, as the only man to have done so in 2017 – the second time in his career he has achieved the feat.


On Friday, the Austrian will earn another shot at it when he faces the 10-time Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters champion in the quarter-finals on Court Rainier III.  Fifth seed Thiem is considered the Spaniard’s greatest obstacle to capturing a record 11th crown at this ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournament.

Nadal must retain his title to stay ahead of Roger Federer at the top of the ATP Rankings and on Thursday, he moved a step closer to doing so with a routine 6-2, 6-3 win over Russian Karen Khachanov. Thiem, dealt a tough draw in his first tournament back since fracturing his ankle in Indian Wells, needed three sets to see off a resurging Novak Djokovic in his third-round match.

“Of course, it was important for my self-confidence, to know I’m physically 100 per cent again,” Thiem said. “It was a great win.”

It improved his FedEx ATP Head2Head record against the Serbian to 2-5. He enters the quarter-finals with the same win-loss record against Nadal.

All seven matches between the pair have been played on clay, with four of those coming last season. Nadal prevailed in finals on home turf in Barcelona and Madrid before Thiem found revenge in the quarter-finals in Rome. The Spaniard had the final say with a straight-sets semi-final routing en route to his 10th Roland Garros title.

“It is a different year, different feelings for both of us,” Nadal said. “It is going to be a difficult match. He is a player that plays so good on every surface, but especially on clay.

“I can’t let him play from good positions because he has lot of power and it will be so difficult to control him if he is in an advantaged position. I need to take care of that. I need to play aggressive, with higher intensity than him.”

Thiem said he hoped Friday’s quarter-final clash would become the start of another great clay-court rivalry between the pair in 2018. That Rome quarter-final win from last season would be front and centre of mind as he attempts to become the first player to beat both Djokovic and Nadal on clay at the same tournament.

“For sure. It’s a way better feeling if you go against him and know that you’ve beaten him already on this surface. Also two years ago we had a great match here, which was pretty open,” Thiem said, before he reiterated McEnroe’s sentiments.

“It’s the ultimate challenge for everybody, to play against him … I have to raise my level again. I think I’m able to do that. If you do so, I’m going to have chances. If not, I’m out. It’s pretty easy.”

Awaiting the winner will be either No. 4 seed Grigor Dimitrov or No. 6 seed David Goffin. The last time the pair met in February, Goffin was forced to retire from their Rotterdam semi-final after a ball ricocheted off his frame into his eye. In Monte-Carlo, they are also through to the doubles quarter-finals together. The Bulgarian leads their FedEx ATP Head2Head series 6-1, including victory in their biggest showdown to date, in the final of the Nitto ATP Finals in November last year.

Third-seeded German Alexander Zverev will have more cause for celebrations on his 21st birthday should he find a way past Frenchman Richard Gasquet. The last time the pair met, Zverev fended off three match points en route to landing his second Masters 1000 title in Montreal last August. Gasquet’s defeat of Mischa Zverev on Thursday made him the first Frenchman to notch 500 match wins, 16 years after his first as a 15-year-old in Monte-Carlo (d. Squillari).

Second seed Marin Cilic will square off against Japan’s Kei Nishikori in a rematch of their 2014 US Open final. Nishikori leads the pair’s FedEx ATP Head2Head series 7-6, including a win in their lone prior meeting on clay in the 2014 Barcelona quarter-finals.

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