Dominant on Clay, Rafael Nadal Hits a Bump Before the French Open

“Against him, if you’re up a set and a break, you never feel safe because he just doesn’t give you one easy point,” Thiem said.

He added: “He’s this kind of player who never gives up, probably the best fighter in tennis. Especially on clay it’s, for sure, one of the toughest things to beat him.”

Even before the clay-court season began, Nadal, 30, had reasserted himself as one of the best players in men’s tennis. After missing the fall European swing, a rested Nadal hit the hardcourts running at the start of 2017, reaching the finals of the Australian Open, Acapulco and Miami. He lost all three, two to the 35-year-old Roger Federer, who took an even longer break last season.

Nadal won the Barcelona Open last month during a three-tournament winning streak on clay. He defeated Dominic Thiem in two if those tournaments, including in Barcelona.

Josep Lago/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But Nadal, ranked fourth, steadily gained confidence and reaped results once the footing changed to his liking. With Federer sitting out the clay-court season, and No. 1 Andy Murray and No. 2 Novak Djokovic struggling, the power on the men’s tour has swung back to Nadal.

Still, he acknowledged that cumulative fatigue from his heavy workload might have played a role in the loss to Thiem.

“It’s not easy, no, after playing almost every day for the last four weeks, no?” Nadal said. “It’s normal that one day you don’t feel perfect, and if you are unlucky on that day that you don’t feel that well, the opponent plays unbelievable.

“So, then, tomorrow I will be in Majorca fishing or playing golf or doing another thing.”

Thiem raced out to a 5-1 lead in the first set, bludgeoning his forehand and one-handed backhand at every opportunity.

“I knew that if I want to have a chance, then I have to do something different and be more aggressive,” Thiem said. “I knew that if it goes in — everything — maybe I have a chance. If not, maybe I also lose easy. But today was one of these days where I really felt the ball great on the racket, and a lot of risky shots went in. It was a very, very good performance, and I think probably one of my best matches.”

Nadal pulled as close as 5-4 in the first set, but Thiem served it out, then broke Nadal’s serve in the seventh game of the second set with a barrage of blistering forehands.

Nadal credited Thiem’s aggressive play and depth of shot as the decisive factors in their match.

“Today I was not able to push him back,” Nadal said. “He had the control of the points.”

Although he has won the tournament seven times, Nadal said the smaller confines of the center court in Rome made retrieving and counterpunching more difficult than at previous tournaments and gave an advantage to more powerful players.

Thiem joins two other powerful players, Alexander Zverev and John Isner, in the semifinals. Isner, 32, is the first American man to reach the Italian Open semifinals since Andy Roddick in 2008. In a Saturday night semifinal, Thiem will face either Djokovic or Juan Martín del Potro. Their match Friday was suspended by rain with Djokovic ahead, 6-1, 1-2.

Djokovic is the only man remaining in Rome who has previously won a Masters event. He has won 30.

Nadal will now turn his attention to a 10th French Open title, a quest that is being called La Décima.

Already this spring, Nadal has notched his 10th titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, but reaching that milestone at the French Open would be unprecedented in men’s Grand Slam tennis.

Nadal said he did not consider tournaments like Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome preparation.

“Every tournament is so emotional for me; every tournament is so important,” he said.

But he expressed satisfaction at his performance on clay thus far, acknowledging that by playing the earlier tournaments well, “then you have more chances in Roland Garros.”

With a title in Rome, Nadal would have run the table at his four traditional French Open warm-up events for the first time in his career. Although he failed to clear that high bar, Nadal spent little time dwelling on the missed opportunity.

“Now remains Roland Garros,” he said. “I’m going to rest a little bit. That, I think, I deserve.”

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