Answers have certainly been hard to find, and nowhere has the glass ceiling proved so rigid as in Grand Slam competition.
Since the start of 2004, only two other active players have snatched a Major title: Marin Cilic and Juan Martin del Potro each has one. So by the time this year’s French Open is signed and sealed, at least 47 titles out of the last 50 will belong to just five men, and the chances are that 47 will become 48.
For even with the absence of Federer and Nadal, it is hard to see beyond the same group in Paris. World No1 Djokovic, the dominant player for two years, was tipped to complete his set of Grand Slams here even before two of his biggest rivals pulled out. Wawrinka is defending champion—and few will forget the devastating tennis he threw at Djokovic in last year’s final. Murray, despite a loss of concentration in his two opening five-setters, arrived in Paris with the best clay form of them all: semis in Monte-Carlo, final in Madrid, title in Rome.
But while it would be an upset should another pair of hands lift La Coupe des Mousquetaires in a week’s time, there is at least now some wriggle room for a young challenger to make his mark. But who?
Well the answer may sit in the quarter vacated by Nadal, whose place has been taken by the 56-ranked 30-year-old Marcel Granollers—a rather less insurmountable obstacle to the quarter-finals than the anticipated nine-time former champion. For two of the young players tipped for great things, friends Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev, perhaps opportunity knocked.
The 13-ranked Thiem, age 22 and in just his third year on the Grand Slam circuit, came to Paris close to a career-high, with six titles, three of them won this year.
The Austrian’s improvement in his rankings and fitness had been impressive over the last 12 months. Only last week, he scored his 100th match-win in a title run in Nice. He arrived in Paris, indeed, with the most match-wins on clay this season. And while he had reached this stage of the US and Australian Opens, he was playing in the third round of the French Open for the first time.
Across the net was one of the clutch of young players embraced by the ATP tour as the #NextGen—and the 19-year-old Zverev had begun to look every inch a champion-in-waiting since he was named ITF Junior World Champion and won the Australian Junior title.
He had a way to go to catch Thiem in the senior rankings, but like the Austrian, he had taken huge strides in the last 12 months. During Wimbledon last year, he was ranked 123, by this February he was 56, and by the time he reached Roland Garros he was at a new career high after reaching his first final in Nice—against Thiem.
The firsts had kept coming as he passed his 19th birthday: a first semi-final in Montpellier, a first ATP500 quarter-final in Rotterdam, a first Davis Cup against the Czech Republic, a first Masters fourth round in Indian Wells, and now into his first Major third round at his debut French Open.
He had won seven of his 20 matches against top-20 opposition, too, including the likes of Cilic, David Goffin, and Gilles Simon. And while he had yet to beat Thiem, their final in Nice and their semi-final in Zurich had gone the full three sets, and so in their first Grand Slam meeting, much was expected.
The first set certainly lived up to expectations. Zverev threatened in the sixth game with two great backhand return-of-serve winners, but Thiem got the better of a fine net exchange to hold.
Zverev battled long and hard to avoid a break in the 11th game, coming back from 0-40 down with three winning serves, and he would save another three break points and survive seven deuce. He raised his fist to his box, and with a love hold from Thiem, they headed to a tie-break.
Now the teenager surged ahead with the help of big serving, 5-1, and closed out the set, 7-6(4).
It had taken an hour, but it seemed also to have taken a toll on the younger 6ft6in but still relatively lightweight Zverev. The two men exchanged breaks at the start of the second set, but Thiem was now serving the better, and he broke again in the fifth, held to love twice, and served out the set, 6-3.
Zverev looked constantly to his box for reassurance, but missed the chance of a break point in the second game. Instead, Thiem looked confident, strong and focused: The Austrian broke in the third, and held to love for 3-1. Zverev, despite a time violation at the change of ends, kept up the fight, took a big tumble, fought off more break points, and very nearly got the break back in the eighth. But Thiem’s powerful and flexible one-handed backhand fired a winner down the line to hold, and he broke Zverev to love for the set, 6-3.
The difference in their energy levels was now clear: Thiem was all over the match, sealed the necessary break in the fourth, held off a late flourish from Zverev, and served it out to love, 6-3, after 2hrs 50mins.
It was just in the nick of time: thunder rumbled as the storm clouds gathered. Within 20 minutes, play was stopped across Roland Garros as the heavens opened.
Good fortune as well as fine form for Thiem, then. He will not only get a decent rest before his fourth-round match, but face an opponent, in Granollers, who he has beaten in all three previous matches, all of them on clay and all before the young Austrian had evolved into a top-20 player.
Thiem is now 39-10 for the year, but he brushed aside any suggestion that he may be physically jaded:
“I think [on the physical side] I made the biggest step from last year to this year… [So] I feel fine. As long as everything is in Europe, no long flights, no jet lag, it’s not that tough.”
Conversely, Zverev admitted after the Nice final that he was ‘completely done’, and that looked to be the case here, too. But give him the three extra years that Thiem currently has, and Zverev may be different prospect.
The German freely admitted in Rotterdam: “Yes, I’m still developing. A lot of ex-players also told me that for tall players, it takes more time to develop… from building up the body, building the muscles, everything is just a bit harder, but in the end it all pays off.”
So Paris could be Thiem time—or at least a stab at a first Major semi. But Zverev, at 19, possesses power on serve and from the baseline and a willingness to attack—20 points from 34 at the net today. Indeed for all his success this season on clay, he has the kind of game—and ambition—that may do even better on the coming grass.
Perhaps Wimbledon will provide the opportunity for meeting No4 in this budding rivalry.
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