(Reuters) - Austrian world number four Dominic Thiem was a losing finalist at the French Open last year as Spaniard Rafael Nadal continued his dominance on the Paris clay.
But the 25-year-old Thiem, nicknamed the “prince of clay”, is ready to give 11-times champion Nadal, who also beat him in the last four in Paris in 2017, a run for his money this year and win that elusive first Grand Slam on his favorite surface.
Thiem’s affinity with clay goes back to his childhood in Austria where the surface was the most popular throughout the year.
“It is just my natural surface, I know how to move on it, how to play on it, that’s why I love it,” said Thiem, seen for years as a likely Grand Slam winner.
“Since the age of eight to about 18 this is all we played and practised on,” he said.
But the Grand Slam crown has not yet arrived.
“Rafa is always going to be the number one contender, closely followed by Novak (Djokovic) now because he is at his best again right before the French Open,” Thiem said.
“Then there is another group, four, five, six players which I think also can win almost every week a big title.”
Having beaten Nadal four times on clay in the last four seasons, including a straight-sets win in Barcelona in April, Thiem has confirmed himself as one of the finest clay court players.
The Austrian, who also won in Indian Wells, clinched the title in Barcelona, his second of the year, without dropping a set.
With nine of his 13 titles coming on clay it is clear the French Open is his main target and to that end he brought in Nicolas Massu as coach after ending his longtime partnership with Gunter Bresnik a few months ago.
“I think that my game has got more unpredictable,” he said of Chilean Massu’s influence. “That is one big part. I have amazing groundstrokes... but the last few years sometimes I had the problems that I made amazing shots, but the game was too predictable somehow.
“At certain times I had the feeling opponents know where I am going to play.”
With fellow title contender Djokovic giving his seal of approval to Thiem’s game, the Austrian now needs to start delivering.
“I think it’s going to be a really good tournament. Thiem has been playing some good tennis and he can beat anybody, especially on clay,” Djokovic said.
Reporting by Karolos Grohmann, editing by Ed Osmond