In the four years that Dominic Thiem has been playing in Grand Slam tennis, he’s never made it past the fourth round, except at Roland Garros. The 24-year-old has reached the semi-final stage in the last two editions, but his record doesn’t quite live up to the billing of a future great – and a potential successor to Rafael Nadal on clay.
On Friday though, on the red dirt of the Philippe-Chatrier, Thiem pushed his case further. In a contest against unlikely semi-finalist Marco Cecchinato of Italy, the Austrian took two hours and 17 minutes to book a spot in his first ever major final after a 7-5, 7-6(10), 6-1 win.
The way the World No 8 has played this tournament has had that nagging, yet satisfying, ‘about-time’ feel to it. For all the talent and expectations, the results when it mattered most just didn’t come his way in previous Slams. Earlier in the year, at the Australian Open, he came up against then World No 97 – another tennis journeyman – Tennys Sandgren and was upset in a five-set encounter.
But in Paris, on the clay surface where he is most comfortable on, Thiem played a delectable mix of power and touch tennis to end Cecchinato’s fairytale run.
While receiving serve, he positioned himself deep behind the baseline where he could measure the high bounce and speed of his opponent’s overhead drive. Regardless of the distance from the net, he had faith in his top-spin strokes and he belted the ball back, hitting the angles with remarkable accuracy.
It was however, in the second set where the outcome of the match was truly decided. A tie-breaker was in order after both players failed to break serve. Thiem seemed poised to wrap up the set after racing to a 6-3 lead, but faltered after making a series of errors – including a regulation volley that he hit into the net – to let the Italian bounce back.
Up till the match, Cecchinato, the World No 72, punched above his weight when he played and beaten Pablo Carreno-Busta, David Goffin and 2016 champion Novak Djokovic. This tournament was his 14th Grand Slam appearance, but he had failed to win a single main draw match in the four times he’s made it to the final 128 earlier. He’s ridden his luck all through Roland Garros this term, and given the way he managed to get back in the tie-break, momentum had suddenly shifted in favour of the underdog.
It needed a moment of magic – and sheer guts – from Thiem to thwart the Italian.
Facing set point as he trailed 9-10, Thiem audaciously sliced a backhand drop-shot winner. After failing to convert four of his previous set point opportunities, he finally seized the fifth.
“The second-set tie-break was the big key to the match, 100 percent, because obviously, he (Cecchinato) felt all the matches from these two weeks after that,” Thiem said. “And if he would have won the tie-break, he would be full power, for sure, in the third set. So it was good for me that I won it.”
The third set was where Thiem’s court-craft and experience on clay came to the fore. The shots came off his racquet with power and depth as he raked up nine winners in the third set compared to Cecchinato’s solitary strike. Eventually, Thiem sealed the set 6-1, and with it the match.
It was also a matter of being the better master of the one-handed backhand (Cecchinato too plays with a single-handed backhand).
“I like to play against guys with a one-handed backhand. Maybe some things are a little bit easier against them,” Thiem said. “Maybe you can build a point a little bit easier against them if you play some high balls on the backhand. Everybody with a single-handed backhand has some problems there.”
In the entire match, the Italian couldn’t hit a single winner off his backhand while Thiem struck nine.
The Austrian had simply gained from the form he struck when he beat NextGen sensation Alexander Zverev in the quarter-final. Earlier, still he got the better of Kei Nishikori in four sets, and had started his campaign with a win over talented Greek teenager Stefanos Tsitsipas. But it was all a culmination of the work he’s put into his game in the last year.
He was at his attacking best on a day when both players eschewed monotonous grinding on clay to keep each other guessing with delicate drop shots and keen net games. Thiem will need all those shots, working perfectly, even more, when he comes up against the ‘King of Clay’ Nadal in the final.
“I don't think it's a real breakthrough,” said Thiem after making it past his first semi-final. “I mean, I played semis last two years, so just went one step further today.”
On Sunday, two of the world’s best clay-courters will contest for the title that Nadal has won 10 times. For Thiem, it’ll be an opportunity to truly earn his first Slam title, and becoming the first Austrian since Thomas Muster (1995 French Open) to win a major.
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Updated Date: Jun 09, 2018 12:10:12 IST