When the match was about to resume after yet another rain interruption, Dominic Thiem stood by the ‘Wall of Champions’ in the bowels of Court Philippe-Chatrier.
Thiem, itching to go back on the court, eyed names of former champions like Gustavo Kuerten, Andre Agassi, Manolo Santana lasered onto the sterile white wall.
The 25-year-old Austrian though shed the awe that history inspires, and went out to meet a modern great and the 2016 champion Novak Djokovic on equal terms.
Locked in a tough battle with Djokovic, Thiem had been leading 6-2, 3-6, 7-5, 5-7, 4-1 when the match, already in its second day, was once again stopped due to rain. The two players had to counter some of the toughest conditions on Friday and survive constant changes in momentum to get to the all-important fifth set. While Djokovic had been mainly angsty and surprisingly errant, Thiem, the younger more inexperienced of the two, had taken everything in his stride coolly.
It was his equanimity over the two days, and through the ebbs and flows of the match, that finally saw him over the line against the world No 1. Thiem, who had held two match points on his serve on 5-4, finally closed the door on Djokovic with a forehand winner. The incredible 6-2, 3-6, 7-5, 5-7, 7-5 victory, in four hours and 13 minutes, on Saturday meant that Thiem had made his second straight French Open final. And on Sunday he takes on a player whose name shines the brightest in the annals of Roland Garros history: Rafael Nadal.
“If someone reaches the final here it is always against Rafa,” Thiem said about the 11-time champion. “It was an amazing experience last year and he is favourite, but I’ll put everything into making it an amzing experience out here again.”
Ever since his breakthrough in 2016, when Thiem made it to the semis before going down to Djokovic, the Austrian has established himself as one of the best players on clay. His game is built on powerful groundstrokes – a result of massive swings —rather than grinding defence. In the semi-final, Djokovic, even when he wasn’t distracted, found the weight of Thiem’s shot too much to handle on occasion.
Some more heavy-hitting will be in order if the Austrian is to push Nadal harder in Sunday’s title clash. Even though the Austrian has met Nadal on clay for three years running, he has found the Spaniard almost impossible to budge in Paris, on Court Philippe-Chatrier. He trails Nadal 0-3 in the head-to-head at French Open and has lost nine sets in a row.
Whether Thiem can overturn that advantage and stop Nadal from winning a record 12th French Open title remains to be seen, but he did end Djokovic’s historical bid on Saturday. The Serb had been on a 26-match winning streak and aiming to become the first player in the modern era to hold all four Grand Slam titles twice. Djokovic had completed his ‘Nole Slam’ by winning the 2016 French Open. And the world No 1 looked on a roll in Paris as he motored to the semis without dropping a set.
But Thiem, who has added former Chilean player Nicolas Massu to his coaching staff, has grown in belief over the years. Despite the swirling wind turning the court into a dust bowl on Friday, the fourth seed stuck to his guns and hit through an irritated Djokovic to take the first set 6-2.
Djokovic, being Djokovic, came back roaring. Over the two days, the Serb gave a very good impression of his never-say-die attitude, one that has seen him notch up 15 Grand Slam titles. But he somehow lacked the poise and the execution against Thiem. The Serb, known for his pin-point precision, notched up 53 unforced errors. Usually great at problem solving on the court, Djokovic’s decision to continue with rushing to the net was baffling. With Thiem passing him with glee, he won only 35 of his 71 net points. The Serb was also warned for taking too long between points and engaged in an argument with the umpire in the fourth set, squabbling that he was starting the shot clock too quickly.
Every rain interruption, including when the players retired for the night at 6-2, 3-6, 3-1 on Friday, was just at the wrong time for Thiem. The Austrian shrugged it off and every time Djokovic made him dig deeper, he came up with the goods. In one incredible rally, Djokovic baited Thiem with a drop shot, the Austrian slid in and in a piece of pure art, sent the ball back, over the net at the acutest angle possible.
On Saturday, when play resumed with Thiem leading 4-1 in the fifth set, Djokovic returned to the sun-soaked court with a brighter outlook. He constantly attacked deep into Thiem’s forehand corner, and preyed on the short responses at the net. Thiem saw Djokovic close the gap to 3-4, then saw two match points on his serve disappear. Never losing heart though, the Austrian kept punching holes in the Djokovic defence. He earned a third match point when, unable to tackle Thiem’s one-handed backhand, Djokovic sent a limp forehand into the net. Like he had a few times, the Austrian ran around his backhand and cracked a forehand down the line winner to seal his first five-set win at the French Open.
He’d won the battle, but on Sunday it will be a war, as Thiem seeks to go up on the ‘Wall of Champions’.
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Updated Date: Jun 08, 2019 23:04:41 IST