French Open 2019: No shortage of motivation as Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem get ready for semi-final showdown

Been there, done that.

How many players in the world can say that about a Grand Slam semifinal? The number is smaller than you’d expect – only around a dozen active players have reached that stage more than once. And despite the labor-intensive look of his game, Dominic Thiem has become a dab hand at the task. He has now reached four Major semifinals, all at Roland Garros, all in successive years.

Thiem is so accustomed to going deep in the Paris draw that he has started to look like a seasoned campaigner. In his quarterfinal match against Karen Khachanov, the Austrian played with something resembling veteran savvy. He still took huge swings at the ball and imparted maximum pace and velocity on it, but he didn’t take as many risks as usual – because he knew that he didn’t need to.

 French Open 2019: No shortage of motivation as Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem get ready for semi-final showdown

File image of Novak Djokovic. AFP

Khachanov, playing his first ever Slam quarterfinal, looked a little out of his depth at such a big stage. Thiem was quick to recognize that, and for the most part focused on hitting the ball deep and out of the strike zone of the Russian. He made just 12 unforced errors all match and never faced a break point, while at the other end Khachanov made 37 errors and got broken five times.

It looked like a master teaching his pupil a lesson.

Unfortunately for Thiem, he will have to face the master of masters in his next match. Novak Djokovic has done what was expected of him by dispatching Alexander Zverev in the quarterfinal, and the semifinal that all Thiem fans were dreading has come to pass.

Djokovic is the top-ranked player in the world and the winner of the last three Slams, and he’s playing like it. The Serb hasn’t dropped a set in his first five matches, and hasn’t even been taken to a tiebreaker. The one time a player did come close to winning six games in a set – Zverev in the quarterfinal – Djokovic promptly brought out his most cussed tennis to shut down the threat.

It’s not just that Djokovic is a tough opponent; it’s that he is the toughest opponent there can be. His defense has become so impenetrable that many believe he has surpassed Rafael Nadal in that department – even on clay. As Zverev and many others will attest, it is borderline impossible to regularly hit past the World No 1 on a slow surface.

Thiem of course doesn’t have to rely on second-hand accounts to appreciate the enormity of his task. He has faced Djokovic eight times in his career, and has been beaten as many as six times. The two matches that he did win came during Djokovic’s slump period of 2017-18, when the Serb was losing to all kinds of opponents.

It might not be wrong to say that Thiem is more comfortable playing against the other two members of the Big 3 (Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal) than he is against Djokovic. Five of his six losses to Djokovic have been straight-set affairs, and he has been bagelled or breadsticked a whopping four times. Even if you consider just clay – by far Thiem’s best surface and Djokovic’s worst – the Serb still has a 3-2 edge.

What is it about Djokovic’s game that makes life so difficult for Thiem? The answer lies in that mysterious thing called player vs player dynamics. Thiem is, from every conceivable angle, a convenient match-up for Djokovic – not unlike the way Federer is for Nadal.

Just one glance at the Austrian’s game is enough to tell you how his strengths play right into Djokovic’s hands. Thiem likes to stand well behind the baseline and take exaggerated, roundhouse swings on his groundstrokes; Djokovic is an expert at stealing court position and taking time away from the opponent, making roundhouse groundstrokes ineffective. Thiem is great at pushing his opponents back with his heavy topspin; Djokovic knows how to smother topspin by hitting on the rise.

To make matters worse, Thiem’s weaknesses are also especially susceptible to the Serb’s weapons. He often struggles to change the pattern and direction of a rally, and nobody is better than Djokovic at slowly working his way into a point that has endless shots of a similar nature. Moreover, Thiem’s inability to dial down his power can be easily exploited by Djokovic; I’ve lost count of the number of times Thiem has overcooked his shots in the face of the Serb’s relentless retrieving.

All that said, Thiem is nothing if not a determined learner. He has slowly but steadily worked on his game to make it the claycourt colossus it is today, and in the process has also made his matches against Djokovic more competitive. The Serb still enjoys an inherent match-up advantage whenever the two take the court, but as their two-tiebreaker match in Madrid last month showed, that advantage is getting smaller with every new wrinkle that Thiem is adding to his game.

Thiem has also faced tougher opposition coming into this match, although it is debatable whether that is a positive or a negative. Sure, he was taken to four sets in each of his first three matches, while Djokovic hasn’t dropped a set – which prima facie suggests the Serb is fresher and in better form. But on the flip side, none of Thiem’s four-setters was particularly long or exhausting, and each of them posed a unique challenge that he eventually found a way to overcome. Thiem is more battle-tested than Djokovic right now, and that might help him in the pressure situations during the semifinal.

To be honest, the man isn’t just battle-tested at this year’s tournament; he’s been battle-tested for a while. After four years of diligently knocking on the door and doing everything in his power to challenge for the throne, Thiem now seems ready to cross the last hurdle. And considering all that he’s had to go through to get here, very few in the tennis world would begrudge him a maiden Slam title at this year’s French Open.

The problem for Thiem is that his story, while a heart-warming and inspiring one, pales in comparison to what Djokovic is trying to accomplish. The Serb is on the verge of a second Nole Slam, and it is unlikely that Thiem’s power or persistence will stop him in his quest.

Prediction: Djokovic to win in four sets.

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Updated Date: Jun 07, 2019 19:41:04 IST