February 26, 2024

Open Court

MORE TENNIS THAN YOU'LL EVER NEED

BRISBANE, Australia – There were two Grand Slam champions on the practice court Friday afternoon in Brisbane.

Rafael Nadal is ranked No. 672 and falling, and has been out a full year. Dominic Thiem, after missing significant time with a wrist issue in 2021-22 is inside the top 100.

But just barely.

You couldn’t have two more different stories.

Nadal has missed a lot of time to injury in his career – and never more crucially than over the last year when, at age 36, he missed the entire season after losing in the second round of the Australian Open.

His return this week, starting at the ATP 250 in Brisbane, is a study in perseverence and determination. And even given he had arthroscopic surgery on his left hip in June, you’ll find a lot of people confident he’ll be able to come back.

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Perhaps not to his prior form – wear and tear and Father Time are catching up. But even he is surprised by how good he’s feeling now, compared to even a month ago.

And on Friday, he looked good. He practiced a lot of serve and drop-volley combinations. He was moving well.

Here’s what it looked like.

Thiem – looking forlorn

For Thiem, it’s a completely different story.

He’s currently ranked No. 98, and birthday No. 30 snuck up on his last fall. And while he’s likely to get into the main draw at the Australian Open in a couple of weeks, he’s still not in. He needs another withdrawal to make it.

Thiem was out from June 2021 through March 2022 with a tear in his right wrist.

And since his return, he’s been a shadow of himself.

The Austrian, whose 2020 US Open title was the last title he won, fell out of the top 30 after the 2022 Australian Open. He was down as far as No. 352 in June of 2022. And only a year ago did he even break the top 100. He has stayed there, except for about a half-dozen weeks. But Thiem still hasn’t even gotten back into the top 70.

It’s pretty crazy, when you think about it.

It’s going on nearly two years since he returned, and it seems he’s just treading water. He’s tried to remake his forehand to take pressure off that wrist, without much success.

He’s played Challengers. He has battled hard through some tough draws in majors – a year ago, he meekly went down in straight sets to Andrey Rublev in his Australian Open opener, battled to a fifth set in Paris after losing the first two before going down to Pedro Cachin, and lost a heartbreaker in the first round at Wimbledon to Stefanos Tsitsipas.

His body language on court with Nadal Friday was so … negative. You can’t blame him for being discouraged at this point, but it wasn’t helping.

Nadal took the first set 6-3. And Thiem, who had a lot of trouble finding his first serve, sprayed errors all over, moistly well long. He didn’t seem to have any kind of a game plan. He just looked kind of lost.

Here’s what it looked like.

Into the qualies

Imagine the contrast from playing Nadal on the stadium court Friday to … playing the first round of qualifying on a back court Saturday, against a 20-year-old Aussie ranked No. 272.

(He’s not the only former top player in the Brisbane qualifying; Diego Schwartzman will play Jacob Bradshaw, ranked No. 658).

Thiem should get through. But it’s awfully tough to watch.

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