There was polite applause for the winner Dominic Thiem. But mostly there was a sense of disbelief that cast a gloom over the on Suzanne Lenglen court. Everyone expected the 23-year-old Thiem to put up a valiant fight against Novak Djokovic. Nobody knew Djokovic was so bereft of it.
Twelve months ago, the Serb had covered himself in glory on the red dirt. He won the 2016 French Open to complete his career Grand Slam, and become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four majors at a time. On Thursday, he crashed out of the quarterfinal with a score 7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-0, conceding the last Grand Slam he held.
Since winning the title in Paris last year, Djokovic's performances at the Slam read thus: third round of Wimbledon, finalist at US Open, second round at Australian Open and now a quarterfinal finish. It was the first time since 2010 that the world No 2 had failed to reach the semi-final at the French Open.
As baffling as Djokovic’s slide has been, nothing could have prepared us for his utter resignation in the third set. Over the years, the Parisian clay has played stage to Djokovic’s gladiatorial qualities; no other Slam has showcased his ambition quite like it. Djokovic usually plays his best tennis when cornered. Against Thiem, after he lost the first two sets, the first of which after he was 4-2 up and held two set points at 5-4, Djokovic packed in. He won a total of eight points, only six on his serve and made 12 unforced errors.
At the game break after 0-5, Djokovic was out of the chair and ready to return before time was called. “It looks like he doesn’t want to be on the court,” John McEnroe said on air. The Serb hit the first two returns out, then put a backhand wide to give Thiem three match points. To put up some semblance of resistance, Djokovic rushed to the net and volleyed a winner. When he tried to replicate that play, Thiem sent a backhand down the line passing shot to seal the match. His 38th winner of the match.
Even as Djokovic's emotional troubles have been brewing over the past 12 months, Thiem had been building up to this moment in the last year. His incredible run at the 2016 French Open had been abruptly stopped by the Djokovic juggernaut in the semifinal. In fact, in their five previous meetings, Thiem had managed to win just a set off the 30-year-old Serb. Only last month, he had gone down 1-6, 0-6 in the semi-finals at the Rome Masters. In that match, Djokovic’s incisively deep ground-strokes had cramped Thiem for space and time.
But on Thursday, the Austrian, having learned from the Rome experience, didn’t let Djokovic set the tone and pace of the rally. He came out swinging on both flanks. As shockingly poor as Djokovic was in the third set, it was Thiem’s power and impeccable shot-selection that had pushed him to a hopeless precipice.
Having turned pro in 2011, when the ‘Big Four’ completely dominated the stage, Thiem has spent a lot of time in the wings. But he is finally moving to the centre-stage. Bred on clay, it is his favourite surface and this season Thiem has clearly broken away from the pack.
He is the only player who has beaten Rafael Nadal on clay in 2017. After losing two successive finals to the all-conquering Spaniard – in Barcelona and Madrid—Thiem got through his defences in Rome. A look at the scorelines shows how Thiem had been steadily building up to it: he lost 4-6, 1-6 in Barcelona, then 6-7 (8), 4-6 in Madrid and came away a 6-4, 6-3 winner in the quarterfinal in Rome. It was an irresistible show of power hitting by Thiem. Nadal has, time and again, used his lefty forehand, viciously laden with top-spin, to fire into the backhand corner of right-handed players to break them down on clay. But Thiem’s single-handed backhand swung into action to neutralise that strategy.
It will be Nadal whom he will face in the semifinals on Friday as well. The Spaniard has resumed his clay-court dominance this season, and advanced to the last four for the first time since 2014 after his opponent, Pablo Carreno Busta retired at 6-2, 2-0.
“It’s amazing for me,” said Thiem after beating Djokovic. “Before I had a 0-5 head-to-head against him. It was a dream. It was a little bit tricky today, there was wind and it was colder than previous days. It’s amazing how difficult it is to go deep in a Grand Slam because you have to play the best guys round after round and it’s not getting easier on Friday.”
The best clay-court player in history, Nadal was the overwhelming favourite going into Roland Garros. And with Djokovic on the wane, Thiem was going to be the biggest threat to his quest for La Decima. Both the players have progressed to the last four without dropping a set. Unlike fellow Austrian and former French Open champion Thomas Muster, Thiem is not all about tireless defence. Like Nadal, Thiem is a true blue baseliner who can hit offensive shots from the most defensive positions.
He has been Nadal’s understudy for some time now, and is expected to be his successor. Friday’s battle of generations will decide if it’s Thiem’s time; it has a nice ring to it already.
Updated Date: Jun 08, 2017 10:22 AM