Rafael Nadal’s clay-court dominance ended in Rome. Is that good for his French Open hopes?

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Rafael Nadal’s path toward a 10th French Open title hit a minor speed bump Friday in Rome, as the clay-court maestro fell to Dominic Thiem 6-4, 6-3 in their quarterfinal, ending the Spaniard’s chances of sweeping the four European clay events before Roland Garros for the first time in his decorated career. It’s the first loss on clay for Nadal in 2017, snapping his run of 17 straight wins on his favored surface.

The victory by Thiem, the 23-year-old Austrian, exacted some revenge: He’d lost to Nadal in the finals of the last two clay-court events (Barcelona and Madrid). On Friday, he used power, precision and the little bit of extra timing he got from playing on a slower court to push Nadal back, where he was able to almost bully him into submission. It’s hard to remember another match when Nadal got pushed around so much on clay, even during his (relative) slump prior to this season.

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Thiem becomes the youngest man to ever defeat Nadal twice on clay and only one of seven in history (Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Gaston Gaudio, Andy Murray, David Ferrer and Fabio Fognini — and all of them will be 30 and over by the time we get to Roland Garros). If he hadn’t been in the conversation for French Open favorite before, he is now: With the win, Thiem plants himself firmly behind Nadal and, possibly, Djokovic, in terms of chances to win in Paris.

Even before Nadal walked off the court, there was immediate debate about whether the loss might end up being beneficial for him. He gets the next two days off, giving him nine total before Roland Garros the week after next, and is forced to regroup a bit after Thiem had his way. But is two fewer best-of-three matches really worth the hit to Rafa’s 2017 invincibility?

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Yes and no. Acceptable losses are more for college basketball, when a coach uses a defeat to show an overconfident team with the invincible bravado of youth that they’re capable of getting upset. For Nadal, who’s been at this for 12 years, it’s hard to picture a scenario (minus the always-present injury woes) in which losing could be ultimately constructive.

However, if Djokovic defeats Juan Martin Del Potro in their Friday night quarterfinal, then maybe there is some advantage for Nadal. The two were set to play in Saturday’s semifinal — the hot Nadal versus the flailing Djokovic, a rematch of their Madrid semifinal when Rafa rolled in straight sets. If Nadal played Djokovic tomorrow and lost, not only would that have been a minor (very minor, I suspect) blow to Rafa’s confidence but it would have been an enormous boost to Djokovic’s — a boost that wins against Thiem and one of two potential finals opponents who’ve never won a big tournament couldn’t provide. Winning Rome would give Djokovic a resurgence anyway, but doing it while beating Nadal would have been a major hurdle.

In defeat, Nadal may seem more vulnerable to the rest of the field. He’s not. The French is still his tournament to lose. And if he’s going to have a slip-up en route to Court Philippe Chatrier, better it come to Thiem than his rival, the reigning French Open champion.

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