Rafael Nadal
Credits: Twitter @AustralianOpen

Gradually over a couple of years, Thiem has made giant leaps and could be termed one of the best in the ATP circuit. Six years ago, Dominic Thiem took just seven games off of Rafael Nadal in their first Head2Head meeting over three unpleasant—at least for him—sets in a second-round match at Roland Garros. Despite the one-sided nature of that 2014 affair, Nadal sensed that the young Austrian, then 20, would be a man to be reckoned with in the years to come.

“The new generation have to come, we’re not going to be here for 10 more years,” Nadal said in 2014 after that first match. “Dominic will be there in a short period of time and he will have his chances to become a top star.”

Six years later, Nadal’s prediction that the Big 3 wouldn’t be around for 10 more years is debatable, but he was right on the money about Thiem, who is now ranked one spot behind the Mallorcan brawler at No. 3 in the ATP Rankings.

Thiem, considered a very hard-worker on and off the court got acknowledgement from his idol. “He’s a hard worker,” Nadal said of the Austrian. “Great guy, so I’m super happy for him to watch him win his first Grand Slam and he deserves it. He’s one of the guys on the Tour that really deserves the success because he’s a very hard worker.”

Dominic Thiem
Credits: Twitter @AustralianOpen

Both men won their first matches — Nadal in a rout over Rublev, Thiem in a tough three-setter over Tsitsipas — and so a second win for either will put them in the driver’s seat to make the event’s semi-finals. The rivals have squared off 14 times before, with Nadal holding a 9-5 edge. But they’ve never faced each other indoors and Thiem won their last battle, an Australian Open four-set, four-hour, 10-minute blood feud that featured three tie-breaks, all won by the Austrian. After the loss, Nadal was asked why he thought he lost all three tie-breaks.

“I don’t have a clear explanation, maybe because he played better than me,” Nadal said. “Normally that’s the reason why you win or lose tie-breaks.”

Thiem comes into the match with a 23-7 record on the season and he’s now 7-8 lifetime in five appearances at this event. He has more wins (17) at majors this year than anyone else in the field. With his win on Sunday against Rublev, Nadal upped his season record to 26-5, and his career mark at the ATP Finals to 19-14.

Despite Thiem’s quality year and his win over Nadal in Australia, he said this week that he doesn’t consider himself one of the favourites to win the tournament.

“I think especially this year all eight players are in great form and are pretty much on a hot streak as well,” Thiem said. “Rafa and Novak because of all they have achieved and what they are, I think they’re a little bit above the other six.”

Nadal said he was pleased with how well he served in his first match but warned that his next two opponents — Thiem and Tsitsipas — were two of the Tour’s toughest outs. “[Thiem] is a great player,” Nadal said on Sunday. “He’s improving every year. For me, [it’s] going to be a tough one. Hopefully for him, too.”