Today, the feeling of a vibrant stage light humming to life. Every so often in the unending grind of the professional tour, circumstances will align to offer something so fleeting and beautiful it will let you forget, for a moment, everything outside it. Stare only at Dominic Thiem, who has just now defeated Rafael Nadal 6-4, 6-4 on Barcelona’s red clay, inside a stadium named—and this is literally the translated name—Rafael Nadal Stadium. That scoreline looks simple, but so does walking a tightrope over a gorge.
It feels all the better because we needed it. The 2019 clay season thus far has been a mishmash of strange upsets and forgettable play—the top seeds lost in Monte Carlo and none of our promising up-and-comers managed to seize the opportunity. The draw became so garbled that Fabio Fognini somehow muddled his way to a top-tier tour title. Heading into today, Barcelona felt plagued by a similar sleepiness; why is Tsitsipas losing to journeymen? How did Leonardo Mayer snag a set off Nadal? Who knows. Maybe we’ll see patterns in retrospect, if we even find it necessary to look.
But this. This was just over two hours of stunning, near-flawless tennis, played at a level and in a style that could only be the product of those two men on that surface. For over a decade now we’ve been waiting for a credible foil to Rafael Nadal on red clay. Not just someone who could compete with him—Djokovic can of course compete, in his blunt, mechanistic way—but complement, play in such a way that draws out every last nuance in Nadal’s clay-court game while supplying equal amounts of creativity and force of their own. This is what we got to see today: Rafael Nadal displaying his full, stupefying range of style and talents, executing all of it with the typical fire and precision. And it wasn’t good enough to win.
I don’t know what tennis is meant to look like in its ideal aesthetic form, or on what material it is best played. But the game undeniably blooms and spreads on crushed brick; the points stretch longer, the players, if trained, can cover further distances, the shots can take on angles and trajectories simply not available elsewhere. Unfortunately, we so rarely get to see it at its highest level because the blueprint for defeating the surface’s best player involves denying these traits. You are supposed to shorten points, to beat Nadal. You’re supposed to take the ball early and flatten it out so that the spin on his lefty forehand can’t cut you to ribbons. Put another way, the more beautiful you allow the game to become, the worse your chances are of beating him.
But this is not how Dominic Thiem played, age twenty-five and fast establishing himself as the best player of this new era we keep waiting on to arrive. Domi wanted to run, today. He wanted the same long points Nadal did, points that featured both men flowing from offense to defense and back again, traversing all parts of the court. When Nadal started in with the heavy, looping topspin that’s made him unassailable on slow courts, Thiem welcomed it and threw it back. He set up camp deep behind the baseline, content to trade blows for as long as it took. But when he found chances to move forward, he did so—he hit dropshots this afternoon that made a highly partisan Barcelona crowd gasp aloud. He slid and covered Nadal’s deadly inside-out forehand; he hit a passing shot off his one-handed backhand late in the second set that felt impossible, even watching it over again, and looked so poignantly like the answer Federer’s spent his career looking for in that exact situation but has never found.
Nadal’s goal in every clay-court match is to break the game open and pour its possibilities out onto the table. Today, Dominic Thiem’s answer was stunning and simple: Yes. Let’s.
The takes are already flowing in. Is Thiem the new favorite in Paris next month? What does this match mean? I don’t know what this match means. What does Rembrandt’s The Night Watch mean? Is the sun catching the rippling surface of the water just before dipping below the horizon of a lake overrated?
Today, after many weeks of forgettable tennis, we were reminded of the possibilities of the form. It’s the sort of display that can breathe new life into a season. It was breathtaking, even just from the simple fact of knowing how rare it is, that we can say with certainty that we’ll see something like it again any time soon. Tennis can be fragile in that way, which is half the point. Let that be enough.