In a betting heat making the French Open a three-horse race, Jamie Pacheco is eyeing up the outsider of the three. Here's what he likes about Dominic Thiem.
"Since 2018 they’ve played each other seven times with Nadal 4-3 ahead on all surfaces and just 3-2 ahead on clay. Just a few weeks before last year’s RG final defeat, Thiem made light work of the Pearl of Manacor in his own backyard (Barcelona) on the red stuff, beating Nadal 6-4 6-4."
Ah, Paris in Autumn...
A French Open in September is going to feel weird. Roland Garros normally brings a nice close to the European clay court season after everything has been geared towards it over the previous few weeks, similar to the whole 'all roads lead to Cheltenham' in the world of jumps racing.
Things get even weirder when we realise that not only is it one of very few clay-court tournaments to be held this year but that it's scheduled to take place just one week after the US Open, a hardcourt event, finishes.
The fact that the Roland Garros organization have refunded all tickets is a clue to the fact that the event may not go ahead at all or that its date may yet be changed, with high-profile players critical of the timing. Not only would recovery time from Flushing Meadows exertions be minimal but it would also actually clash with the popular Laver Cup team event.
But for the time being we have to assume it will go ahead as planned and it's certainly not my place to question the wisdom or fairness of a September French Open; I'd rather look for a good bet on it. And I think I've found one in Dominic Thiem at [5.0].
The cursed generation
If you're a top male tennis player aged between about 26 and 35 you could be forgiven for cursing your luck regarding the year you were born.
Most players have one superstar to beat during their careers, sometimes two. Not only do players of that generation mentioned above have three (and Andy Murray was no slouch, either) but those are none other than the three most successful players of all time when it comes to Grand Slam wins: Roger Federer (20), Rafael Nadal (19) and Novak Djokovic (17).
Even allowing for the fact they've all had very long careers that have helped them to win so many Slams, it's easy to argue they're among the five best players of all time.
26-year old Dominic Thiem could easily have three Grand Slam titles to his name now. It was just his own bad luck that in two of those finals he was in, he was up against the greatest clay court player of all time in Nadal. And that when losing the 2020 Australian Open final to Djokovic, he did so against the most successful player at the Australian Open in the Open Era; it was the Serbian's eighth win there.
Of course, you're not going to get very far in life or in sport cursing your luck that you have to keep pitting yourself against the very best.
Thiem needs to start closing the deal sooner rather than later.
Prince of clay?
To make one Roland Garros final is one thing, to do it back-to-back is quite another. But we shouldn't be surprised. Prior to two runner-up spots, he secured consecutive semi-final places, losing to Nadal in 2017, Djokovic in 2016.
Thiem's win percentage in the clay of Paris is a superb 80% and his Career Fedex Index on clay is 0.750, compared to 0.589 on hardcourt and just 0.500 on grass. 10 of his 16 singles career titles were on the dirt. Even Roland Garros themselves describe Thiem as a 'future heir to the throne' on their website.
This is clearly a man who saves his best performances for the clay of Paris and one who could easily claim to be the second-best player in the world on the red dirt over the past three or four years. Which in turn is going to make me go out and put my neck on the line and say this: I don't think anyone can beat him over five sets at Roland Garros bar Djokovic and Nadal. And I'd make him favourite against the former. Thiem has had the better of him in three of their last four encounters on the slowest surface.
All of which makes him the Prince of Clay, but dethroning the King of it is surely near-on impossible. Or is it?
When Nadal lost two straight Wimbledon finals to Federer in 2006 and 2007, I made a mental note that said, 'He's getting closer'. In 2006 Nadal took one set off the Swiss, in 2007 it was two. The following year, that famous one completed in near darkness after long rain delays, he won it.
It's been a similar story with Thiem and Nadal on Court Philippe Chatrier. The first time Thiem was beaten in straight sets, last year he took the second set. He's also getting closer.
Since 2018 they've played each other seven times with Nadal 4-3 ahead on all surfaces and just 3-2 ahead on clay. Just a few weeks before last year's RG final defeat, Thiem made light work of the Pearl of Manacor in his own backyard (Barcelona) on the red stuff, beating Nadal 6-4 6-4.
Opposing Nadal over the years and especially here in Paris has proved very expensive. But we can take at least one crumb of comfort from the fact that Nadal will be 34 in June and though the man's a freak, time waits for no-one. From a physical point of view at least, it's getting harder every year.
I have a sneaky feeling Nadal may choose to sit out the US Open, sacrificing the event in favour of his favourite one knowing that's where his best chance to add another GS win lies. But if he plays at Flushing Meadows and goes deep, he could be exhausted when he returns to Europe.
Thiem on the other hand, is approaching his prime in every sense.
Right now, the ATP rankings have Djokovic, Nadal and Thiem in the Top 3, in that order. Given Nadal has a load of ranking points to defend from last year's US Open win and the smart money is on that being where he's ranked come the French Open, with Thiem leap-frogging him into second being the other most likely scenario.
That would in turn mean a Thiem v Nadal semi-final showdown in Paris if they both make it that far, because of the way the seedings go. And I think that plays into the Austrian's hands. There'll be less pressure on the underdog, less for Thiem to think about if the finishing line is within sight.
And like I say, if he can get the better of Nadal in the semi, then he can surely beat whoever he's up against two days later. At [5.0], he's worth chancing.