Fresh of securing one of the biggest scalps of his young career, Dominic Thiem aims to reach his maiden ATP Masters 1000 semi-final at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome when he faces sixth seed Kei Nishikori on Friday night.
Thiem registered the fourth top 10 win of his career when he defeated an underdone Roger Federer 7-6(2) 6-4 on Thursday. Federer was visibly hindered by the lingering effects of the back problem which forced his withdrawal from Madrid last week and threatens his participation at Roland Garros, but Thiem still had to step up and complete the job, recovering from a break down in the opening set to ultimately prevail relatively comfortably.
"I'm very happy to be in the quarter-finals, it was a very tricky match today," said Thiem. "Of course he was not 100 per cent, but still, he played some very good points. I think you cannot put it out of your head. It's impossible, I think."
Producing 29 thunderous winners to just 13 unforced errors, Thiem has now defeated both Federer and Rafael Nadal on clay this season. His win over Federer was Thiem’s 32nd triumph of 2016 - the second most victories on tour behind only Novak Djokovic.
Thiem is now through to just his second Masters 1000 quarter-final and his first on clay. The Austrian previously made the final eight at the Miami Open last year (lost to Murray). It’s been an incredible season for the 22-year-old, with Thiem capturing ATP World Tour titles at Buenos Aires (defeated Nadal in the semis) and Acapulco, along with a runner-up appearance in Munich and semi-final finishes at Brisbane and Rio de Janeiro.
Dominic Thiem (Photo by TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)
Nishikori meanwhile is progressing quietly through the draw and is poised to advance to his third straight semi-final at Masters 1000 level this season. Following a final appearance in Miami and a semi-final finish at Madrid last week (lost to Djokovic both times), Nishikori has upstaged Viktor Troicki and Richard Gasquet to book his spot in the quarter-finals. Nishikori had previously lost six straight matches against Gasquet, but he’s overturned that record comfortably over the last fortnight, defeating the Frenchman in Madrid and Rome without the loss of a set.
After a somewhat lacklustre beginning to the season, Nishikori is starting to hit his stride, winning 14 of his last 17 matches. However the fact still remains that Nishikori only has three top 10 wins to his name this season - Gasquet twice and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He’s missing that big victory over his higher-ranked rivals, and on clay, Nishikori is well aware of the danger Thiem brings to the court.
"Thiem is a really tough player on clay," said Nishikori. "He won a title this year on clay. So a really tough player. I try to prepare well for tomorrow."
The pair have met once before on tour - last year, where Nishikori prevailed in straight sets on the grass courts of Halle - easily Thiem’s worst surface. Nevertheless, you have to give the edge to Nishikori in this one. Thiem has played tons of tennis recently and Nishikori will make him play that extra ball on a regular basis. The Austrian will have to throw caution to the wind - which he’s certainly capable of doing - but it will take a monumental effort from Thiem to win on Friday night. If Nishikori can win the opening set, he may just be able to run away with it in the second.