After ten consecutive seasons with at least one Major and Masters 1000 title under his belt, Rafael Nadal lost the ground in 2015, winning only three smaller titles but still finishing in the top-5 for the 11th consecutive year.
Trying to bounce back in 2016, the Spaniard suffered a severe loss to Novak Djokovic in the final in Doha, followed by the first-round exit at the Australian Open to Fernando Verdasco after four hours and 40 minutes of a titanic battle.
Heading to South America for his beloved clay, Rafa entered the ATP 250 event in Buenos Aires where he won the title a year ago, hoping for more of the same and at least some boost of confidence after a shaky start of the season.
Facing the rivals from outside the top-50, Rafa took down his good friend Juan Monaco and Paolo Lorenzi en route to the semis, facing the young Austrian Dominic Thiem in the battle for the final. At Roland Garros 2014, Nadal defeated the rival in straight sets but Thiem had learned a lot during those two years, ready to challenge the clay-court master and to deliver a thrilling 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 victory in two hours and 50 minutes, saving one match point and advancing into the fifth ATP final.
Thiem grabbed five points more than Nadal, producing stronger numbers behind the second serve and fending off four out of seven break chances offered to a multiple Roland Garros champion. On the other hand, Rafa repelled five out of eight break points, hanging in there but falling on the last step to lose both the match.
They had a similar number of winners and it was Nadal who sprayed more unforced mistakes, forcing many errors from the youngster but not being able to break his resistance in the decider, losing that clutch and momentum he had before all the setbacks in the last couple of years.
Thiem had the advantage in the shortest rallies up to four strokes, with nothing to separate them in the mid-range exchanges and a small lead for the Spaniard in those rarely extended points with ten or more shots, not enough to push him through.
Nadal grabbed a break in the second game when Thiem sent a backhand long for a perfect start, only to spray a forehand error in the next game to get broken at 15. Serving at 3-3, Rafa landed a forehand winner to dismiss a break point, holding after a service winner and wasting a break chance in the next game that could have sent him in front.
Dominic was the one who grabbed a break at 4-4 thanks to a backhand error from the Spaniard, sealing the set with a service winner in the next game for a 6-4. The Austrian denied a break opportunity in the second game of the second set with an ace, with both players serving well until 3-3 when Rafa had to play against a break chance, repelling it with a forehand down the line winner and staying on the positive side of the scoreboard.
Despite a 40-0 lead, Nadal needed two deuces to secure the ninth game, breaking Thiem in the next game to grab the set 6-4 and force a decider, ready to fight until the last point against an inspired opponent. The final set developed into open war and it started with a break for Dominic in the first game thanks to a backhand mistake from Rafa who pulled the break back in game four to level the score at 2-2 and increase the drama.
The Spaniard held at love in games three and five but Thiem was there to follow his pace, hitting a service winner in the sixth game to lock the result at 3-3. They both held at love in games seven and eight and it was Nadal who moved 5-4 up when his rival sprayed a forehand error, forcing the youngster to serve for staying in the match.
Playing against the match point, the Austrian fired a brave forehand winner to get out of jail, bringing the game home after five deuces and surviving the toughest possible challenge to stay in contention. Leaving that game behind him, Rafa held at 15 to move in front again before Dominic held at love to set the deciding tie break, the best possible way to finish this incredible encounter.
The Spaniard opened it with a double fault, finding himself 3-0 down after an ace from Thiem who clinched another mini-break for a 4-1 advantage, earning five match points with a smash winner at 5-1. Rafa erased the first three before Dominic converted the fourth to take the breaker 7-4 and celebrate one of the most notable victories of his young career.