BARCELONA, SPAIN - APRIL 28: Dominic Thiem of Austria celebrates after his victory against Yuichi Sugita of Japan in the quarter-final on day five of the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadells in the quarterfinal on day five of the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell on April 28, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

Joel Drucker: Time for Thiem?

Dominic Thiem and Rafael Nadal played yesterday in the quarterfinals of Rome. What was the more interesting aspect of this match? Was it most compelling to see Thiem in full shot-making glory, striking remarkable groundstrokes off both sides? Or was it a relief or source of sadness to witness Nadal’s 17-match win streak come to an end?

There’s a lot to like about the tennis these two play versus one another. Nadal’s competitive spirit of course is quite familiar. But Thiem is still coming to the surface, his heart, mind and tools ripening month by month. Versus Nadal, Thiem knows he must calibrate patience with power – not so easy to do versus the Spaniard on clay. But yesterday Thiem mixed this exquisitely. Ever since Thiem first surfaced, his one-handed backhand has been quite notable – a full-bodied stroke he loves to lash both crosscourt and down-the-line with significant power. But while the backhand earns its share of beauty points, Thiem’s forehand is also a weapon. Versus Nadal, Thiem repeatedly threw big punches off that side.

All of this applied persistent pressure. With Thiem off to a sensational start – going up two breaks for a 5-2 first set lead – Nadal knew that he too needed to step up his offense. The tennis was physical, aggressive, each player pressing each other into all corners. But in the end, on this day, Thiem was the one who earned a 6-4, 6-3 victory.

Just last Sunday, in Madrid, these two had played a superb final, Nadal winning that one 7-6, 6-4 – including a 10-8 tiebreaker that closed out one of the best sets of 2017. Off the heels of these two high quality matches, it’s become clear: Nadal is the favorite to win Roland Garros. Novak Djokovic is the defending champion and no matter how poorly his year has gone, his chances must be taken seriously. But among those seeking a Grand Slam breakthrough, Thiem is the leading contender.hes, it’s become clear: Nadal is the favorite to win Roland Garros. Thiem is the leading contender.

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