French Open 2019

French Open 2019: Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem dominate to set semi-final clash

Top 4 players—Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, Thiem—are in SFs of tour-level event for first time since 2012

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis in Paris
Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

The wait was long, wet and tedious for all four of the men biding their time at the quarter-final stage of the French championships.

Already playing a day later than their opposite numbers in the bottom half of the draw, this was the last thing they, the fans and the tournament needed: a whole day rained off.

And this was a quality quartet, ranging from world No1 Novak Djokovic to No11 Karen Khachanov, and with three-time Masters and ATP Finals champion Alexander Zverev, ranked No5, and last year’s Roland Garros runner-up, No4 Dominic Thiem, keen to challenge them.

The dominant man was, without doubt, Djokovic, who in pursuing his 16th Major here was also in pursuit of a very special target. For the second time, he could hold all four Majors at once, something his greatest rival Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had not yet done once: The Nole Slam.

And he was certainly favoured to reach his ninth French semi, his 35th Major semi, having already sealed the record for reaching 10 consecutive French quarter-finals. For the last two years, Djokovic had fallen at the last-eight stage, but since losing to Marco Cecchinato 12 months ago, he had won 25 consecutive Major matches.

So it would take a top-notch performance from Zverev to stop the world No1.

The young German—at 22 years old, he is a decade younger than his illustrious opponent—has yet to make a Major semi-final, but reached his first quarter-final here last year, and his Masters record on clay was impressive: victory at both the Rome and Madrid Masters through 2017-18, plus another final in Italy.

However, since winning the ATP Finals last November to reach No3 in the world, his form had blown hot and cold as he coped with personal and professional challenges away from court. He made a final run on Acapulco’s hard courts, but he went 5-6 through the clay swing, playing six tournaments back-to-back, and then fitting in Geneva before the French Open.

It was a gamble, but it paid off. He won the title, and then progressed through the Paris draw, even if he found himself in too many long dog-fights. And the contrast was stark with Djokovic, who was yet to lose a set, yet to lose more than eight games in a match. When push came to shove, the Serb had spent almost half the time on court.

Not that Zverev is man to lack confidence, no matter the opponent, and he had a 2-2 record against the top seed to prove it, including their only clay meeting in that Rome final in 2017. And he beat Djokovic in their last meeting, too, in the last match of 2018 in London.

So perhaps it was not a surprise that the young German came out firing on all cylinders. He was aggressive from the off, working two break points in the third game, but the incisive baseline striking from Djokovic ensured he could not capitalise.

Zverev continued to pressure the Djokovic serve forcing another break point in the fifth, and yet another in the ninth, and finally Zverev got his reward, playing Djokovic at his own game with flat strikes to alternate corners, changing direction with his backhand, now down the line, now cross court, and drew a backhand error, just wide, from the Serb to break, 5-4

Yet Djokovic did not panic, stuck to his ruthless patterns from the baseline to take control of rallies, and a long exchange in the next game, with Djokovic painting the lines down each wing, got the break back.

Yet Zverev remained bold: facing two break points, set points, he followed into the net for a drop volley winner, his 18th winner of the match. But he faced another set point, and double faulted, a whimper of a conclusion rather than a bang, 7-5, at just under the hour.

Djokovic had played himself into great form, and carried strong momentum into the second set, forcing a growing tally of errors from Zverev and a break in the second game. There were drop-shots to test the legs of the 22-year-old, and near-perfect lobs, and a break at the first opportunity.

An easy hold, and he led 3-0, and although he had another break chance in the fourth game, courtesy of a perfect drop winner, he did not convert. But serving at 2-5 down, Zverev’s focus fell apart, and three double faults in a row handed the break and set to the Serb, 6-2.

Zverev looked down and out, though he regrouped to fire a backhand winner for break point in the first game of the third, and repeated the tactic for a second chance. However, he could not string enough penetrating shots together to convert. He held his first two service games, but did not win another. An easy volley handed over the break for 4-2, and he could no longer hold back the tide serving at 2-5. With little more than two hours played, Djokovic was into his ninth semi in Paris, 6-2, and two matches away from that Nole Slam.

The first of those matches will be against Thiem, who took even less time to dismiss the dangerous Khachanov, 6-2, 6-4, 6-2.

The match between these two was particularly hard to predict. They had played only once before, with the power-house Russian hitting the peak of his form to win the Paris Masters. However, they were yet to play on clay, and although Thiem won his own first Masters in Indian Wells in March, his most successful surface was clay.

He had made the semis at Roland Garros for the last three years, losing to Nadal in the final last year. In Madrid, he had reached the last three semis, finishing runner-up in 2017 and 2018. And where the 6ft 6in Khachanov’s four titles had all come on hard courts, nine of Thiem’s 13 were on the red stuff—including Barcelona this year where he beat Nadal—and six of his seven finals.

And that clay superiority soon became clear. Indeed Khachanov never led Thiem, who took a break early in each set, and by the third, the Austrian was in control, breaking twice, and not once offering up a break point in match.

With 29 winners to the big Russian’s 17, it was a remarkably dominant performance, but his next challenge will take the test to a much higher level.

Thiem has won only two of his previous eight matches against Djokovic, though there was modest cause for optimism. Thiem won on the clay of Monte-Carlo last year, and right here in 2017. However, Djokovic won their last match, in Madrid last month.

Both men will have to play in 24 hours’ time rather than enjoying a day’s rest. But Thiem in particular recognised what a task faces him: Even if he should beat the form-man of the moment, Djokovic, he will still have to play Nadal or Federer. As he pointed out, he has to beat two of the only three men to have won at least 15 Majors.

“All of them have won all four slams, so surface doesn’t really matter. They are so tough on any of the surfaces. I think it never happen in any era of men’s tennis that you have three players with 15-plus Grand Slams. That shows it all… And, I mean, these three, they are doing it since 10, 15 years almost at any Grand Slam.

“But on the other hand, I know all three of them. I have played many, many times against all of them. I feel really good in their company.”

However, remarkably for such dominance in the last decade by those three titans of their sport, this will be the first time that the top four ranked players have contested the main-tour semi-finals in more than seven years. The last time was at the Australian Open in 2012, and the fourth man then was Andy Murray.

So sit back and enjoy what will, rain permitting, be a hot ticket at Roland Garros tomorrow on Philipp Chatrier, beginning at 12.50:

Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal

Novak Djokovic vs Dominic Thiem

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