2017 has been a sublime year for former world number one Rafael Nadal. The 14-time Grand Slam winner has reached an astonishing six finals this year. The fourth seed was second best to his long-time rival Roger Federer, who dominated the hard court season by sweeping up the Australian Open, BNP Paribas Open and Miami Open titles. Nadal lost to the 18-time Grand Slam champion in the finals in Melbourne and Miami. He also lost to the Swiss maestro in the fourth round in Indian Wells. Furthermore, the Spaniard has dominated the clay court season in his rival's absence. He has won the titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid. Nadal returns to the Foro Italico where he is searching for an eighth title in Rome at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia.
Nadal's currently on a 17-match winning streak, and he puts that on the line in the quarterfinals against eighth seed Dominic Thiem. The pair might be getting sick of the sight of seeing each other, as they will meet in the third consecutive tournament. Nadal defeated Thiem in both finals in Barcelona and Madrid. Nonetheless, the young Austrian is having a solid 2017 campaign. The Austrian won his first title of the year in Rio defeating Pablo Carreno Busta in the final. The eighth seed also advanced to the quarterfinals in Indian Wells losing to Stan Wawrinka. Thiem lost to David Goffin in the third round in Monte Carlo but he is performing well on the red dirt as he reached back-to-back finals in Barcelona and Madrid.
Nadal's route to the quarterfinals
The seven-time champion received a bye in the opening round, and the Spaniard had a tough second round encounter with compatriot Nicolas Almagro. However, Nadal's elder compatriot injured his knee in the opening set and retired at 3-0 down. Obviously, the former world number one wasn't happy with his compatriot getting injured but it meant that he would have more energy conserved throughout the tournament. Nadal was tested in the third round against 13th seed Jack Sock. It was an entertaining encounter with both players hitting the ball cleanly, and engaging in long rallies. Nevertheless, Nadal came through that match, 6-3, 6-4 advancing to his ninth successive quarterfinal at the Foro Italico.
Thiem's route to the quarterfinals
The Austrian would have also welcomed a bye into the second round as he has used up a lot of energy in the past couple of weeks. Last year's French Open semifinalist was up against Pablo Cuevas in a rematch of their semifinal encounter in Madrid. Thiem came out on top once more in straight sets, 7-6 (4), 6-4. However, he had a tough third round encounter with Sam Querrey. The American defeated both Nadal and Thiem on his quest to the title in Acapulco. Furthermore, it was a difficult match for Thiem who had to save three match points in the final-set tiebreaker against Querrey. The Austrian won the match, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7) to have another crack at Nadal. Thiem showed his maturity as he saved five match points against Grigor Dimitrov in Madrid in the same round, and went on to reach the final. Could it be an omen for the eighth seed?
The duo will meet for the sixth time and all of their previous five clashes have come on clay courts. Nadal leads their head-to-head series 4-1. The Spaniard defeated Thiem in their first meeting in the second round of the French Open in 2014, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3, and he went on to win his ninth French Open title. However, Thiem would win their next encounter in the semifinals of the Buenos Aires in 2016, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (4). Nadal regained his lead over the Austrian in the third round in Monte Carlo last year, 7-5, 6-3 to win his ninth title in the principality. The former world number one won their next two clashes both coming during this European clay court period in 2017. After a closely contested first set, the fourth seed cruised through the match, 6-4, 6-1 to win the final in Barcelona for the tenth time. Once again, they had a close match last week in Madrid but the Spaniard came out on top, 7-6 (8), 6-4 to win his fifth title at the Caja Magica.
Who reaches the semifinals?
It is hard to see anyone beating Nadal in this current form right now. The nine-time French Open champion is full of confidence, and playing on his favourite surface brings him joy. Four-time champion Novak Djokovic is slowly getting back to his best, and the duo could meet in the semifinals for a second consecutive week. Defending champion Andy Murray's struggles continue, and 2008 finalist Stan Wawrinka, the 2015 French Open champion is also inconsistent. Nevertheless, Nadal isn't taking anything for granted and taking every match, one step at a time. Moreover, the Spaniard is prepared for Thiem, and he will need to watch Thiem's firing backhand. The former world number one's serving over the clay court season has been sublime, and he will be looking to target the Austrian's forehand. The backhand of Thiem is stronger than his forehand but his forehand is still a deadly weapon. Moreover, the Austrian will be looking to push the Spaniard behind the baseline and finishing off points quickly. However, the seven-time champion at the Foro Italico has good movement on this surface. Another incentive for Nadal in this quarterfinal matchup with Thiem is that if he defeats Thiem, he will return to number three in the world.
This mouthwatering quarterfinal clash between the Mutua Madrid Open champion and finalist will be the third match scheduled on Court Centrale. The winner of this encounter will have a tricky semifinal tie with second seed Novak Djokovic or Juan Martin del Potro. Thiem will be looking to gain his revenge but he will push the Spaniard again. Both players must be feeling the fatigue but with Nadal having two virtual byes, he will be the fresher player and is playing the best tennis right now.
Prediction: Nadal in straight sets.