When it comes to clay, there is an undeniable pecking order in the men's game: It's Rafael Nadal, and then the rest.
It's something the whole 2019 French Open field knows and readily admits.
"For me, Rafa is always going to be the No. 1 contender, closely followed by Novak [Djokovic] now because he's at his best again right before the French Open," said Dominic Thiem, the 25-year-old Austrian who reached the final at Roland Garros last year.
"Then there's another group of four, five, six players which I think also can win almost every week a big title."
Nadal's tail is up after his victory over Djokovic in the Italian Open final on Sunday. And for all the signs of fragility early in the clay-court season, the Spaniard is again the favorite for Paris, where he has won a record 11 times. Djokovic, the winner in Madrid earlier this month, is just behind.
If someone else is to triumph, then Thiem, the runner-up to Nadal last year and a semifinalist the previous two years, has all the credentials. Thiem's win on hard courts at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells in March was a statement of intent. He also recently earned a win over Nadal on clay, beating him in the Barcelona semifinals in April on the way to the title.
Thiem's rivals recognize the threat he poses, on clay in particular. "[He hits a] very heavy ball from his side, and next to Rafa, he probably is the player with the most spin and rotation on the ball, so it's very hard to kind of dictate the play, to stay close to the [base]line," Djokovic said in Madrid, where he won their semifinal matchup in two tiebreak sets.
Thiem beat Djokovic in Paris two years ago, when the Serb was the defending champion, and after beating Nadal in Barcelona, he has four wins over the Spaniard on clay, a record bettered only by Djokovic. After Madrid, Thiem lost his first time out in Rome, but his confidence is high.
"If I see my results from the last years on clay, they are very, very good ... Roland Garros, semis, semis, finals," Thiem said in an interview in Madrid, where he beat Roger Federer before losing to Djokovic. "I know how tough it is to get to these deep stages. I'm trying to stay relaxed ... tell myself that I am tough to beat on this surface, and if I am 100 percent and fully pumped, it's difficult to beat me. That's how I try to approach these tournaments."
Staying relaxed in the heat of the battle is far from easy, but a coaching change seems to be helping. After 15 years with Gunter Bresnik, Thiem switched in February to Chilean Nicolas Massu, who won singles and doubles titles at the 2004 Olympic Games. The presence of the easygoing Massu has brought a freshness to Thiem, and the pair has quickly jelled.
"Indian Wells was just amazing because I came from a very tough period, I'd just split up with my coach, so everything came together," Thiem said. "I somehow freed myself and won the tournament, somehow. I didn't know why that happened, that was amazing, my first [Masters] 1000 title, I didn't expect it. In Barcelona, I really played well the weeks before, I beat five very strong opponents, so I think that title was a little bit different. But in general, I'm playing very well.
"It was lucky, not really planned, but it worked out very good from the first moment," he added. "[Massu] knows a lot about tennis so he can give me advice about anything. His favorite surface was clay, but his biggest success came on the faster hard court so he can help me a lot with the transition there. He's also not that old. He played against many guys I'm facing now, and he can give me really good advice for the opponents I face."
With a strong serve, powerful forehand and much-coveted one-handed backhand, Thiem has all the attributes to be a Roland Garros champion -- and if not for Nadal, he would have probably won the title already.
"Roland Garros is the biggest goal in my career," Thiem said. "A Grand Slam title -- it doesn't really matter where it is -- but I think my chances are the highest in Paris, so that's why this tournament is always the biggest highlight of my year."
But only two men -- Robin Soderling in 2009 and Djokovic in 2015 -- have managed to beat Nadal at Roland Garros, and Thiem has few doubts the Spaniard is the man to beat again.
"It's still something different to play him in Roland Garros, on the Court Philippe Chatrier, best-of-five, than in any other tournament, best-of-three," Thiem said. "Of course, I will try everything to win and maybe beat him there, but it's very tough. I never achieved it, I was pretty far from it until now, so it's time to improve. [But] I think also I'm a better player than last year, so that's what I am counting the most on."
Modest and unassuming, Thiem is regarded as one of the nicest men on tour, enjoying good relationships with all his fellow players. And he may just get a bit more support than most in Paris because he is dating French player Kristina Mladenovic.
"I think it [does have] a little effect because of course people know the fact that I am together with her and I think they really love her," Thiem said of the French crowd. "So they take me in their heart also. I hope so. Last year, it was already a very good atmosphere every time I played there, and if the French people are for me, I think it's a big bonus."
Nadal and Djokovic will be hard to beat, but Thiem is ready.