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 Doha final, followed by the Australian Open first-round exit 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 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 Austrian in straight sets. Still, Thiem had learned a lot during those two years, challenging the clay-court master and delivering a thrilling 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 victory in two hours and 50 minutes after saving one match point and advancing into the fifth ATP final.
Thiem grabbed five points more than Nadal, produced stronger numbers behind the second serve and fended off four out of seven break chances offered to the clay king. On the other hand, Rafa repelled five out of eight break chances to hang in, falling on the last step to lose both the match and the title claimed a year ago.
They had a similar number of winners, and it was Nadal who sprayed more unforced mistakes. The Spaniard forced many errors from the youngster but couldn't break his resistance in the decider, losing that clutch and momentum he had before all the setbacks in the last couple of years.
Rafael Nadal wasted a match point against Dominic Thiem in Buenos Aires 2016.
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 one to get broken at 15. Serving at 3-3, Rafa landed a forehand winner to dismiss a break point, held after a service winner and wasted 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 the Spaniard's backhand error, sealing the set with a service winner a few minutes later for 6-4. The Austrian denied a break opportunity in the second set's second game with an ace.
Both players served 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 soon after that 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 an open war, and it started with a break for Dominic in the first game thanks to a backhand mistake from Rafa, who pulled it 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 most challenging possible test to stay in contention. Leaving that game behind him, Rafa held at 15 to move in front again before Dominic brought the 12th game home at love to set the deciding tie break, the best way to finish this incredible encounter.
The Spaniard opened it with a double fault and found himself 3-0 down after an ace from Thiem, who clinched another mini-break for a 4-1 advantage and earned five match points with a smash winner at 5-1. Rafa erased three of those before Dominic converted the fourth to take the breaker 7-4 and celebrate one of his young careers' most notable victories.