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PARIS (Reuters) - Dominic Thiem, the only player to beat claycourt giant Rafa Nadal on the red dirt this season, is one of the dark horses at the French Open - and the Austrian feels he deserves the tag.
The 23-year-old sixth seed at Roland Garros beat the Spaniard - who has won a record nine titles in Paris - in straight sets in the quarter-finals of the Rome Masters shortly after losing a tight final to him in Madrid and another final to him in Barcelona.
He can safely say he's had a good preparation for the 15-day tournament in Paris.
"The win over Rafa was of course a big thing for me. I played the best player on clay three times in three tournaments," Thiem told reporters on Friday.
"I learned a lot from those matches so I think I prepared well for this tournament."
Thiem, who will take on Australian Bernard Tomic in the first round, has not left the top 10 of the ATP rankings since making his breakthrough when he reached the last four of the French Open last year.
"In the beginning, it's very tough to stay there. You think more a little bit to not fall out again," said Thiem.
"And now I'm a little bit more confident. I feel that I belong there, basically. And it's a little bit easier for me."
While Nadal remains the absolute favourite for Thiem, the Austrian is confident he can go far into the tournament.
"I think that Rafa is the big favourite. Novak (Djokovic) is coming, for sure, behind him. And then (Andy) Murray, you never know. He's such a big player. He can also play amazing here," he said.
"And after these three I think there are some players who can go very deep here, who can make big surprises and in these players I count Sascha (Zverev) and myself."
Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Hugh Lawson