French Open 2020: Dominic Thiem makes strong switch to clay for Cilic win; Sock next

Serena Williams wins first clay match in 15 months to set rematch with Pironkova; Nadal also advances

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
Dominic Thiem
Dominic Thiem (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

After one first-round showdown between Major champions on Sunday, another wet day at Roland Garros delivered the other, this time between recent US Open champion Dominic Thiem and the 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic.

The match, a repeat of their recent meeting in New York, was just one of the stand-outs in perhaps the toughest quarter of the draw. What’s more, the winner between Thiem and Cilic could face the winner of the first—Stan Wawrinka beat wild card Andy Murray—in the fourth round.

The world No3 Thiem, runner-up at Roland Garros for the last two years and winner of his first Major last week, has been firmly in the frame as one of the favourites for the French title. But this first hurdle would give some indication of how well he had managed the transition from New York’s hard courts to Paris’s cold, slow clay, especially given that he had no time to play a warm-up clay event along the way.

Of course Cilic’s career had found its biggest successes on hard courts, but he had also made the quarters at Roland Garros in two of the last three years. The former world No3 may now stand at No40—hence being unseeded—but that was largely due to repeated knee and groin injuries, so he was a force to be reckoned with, and that showed in the early stages of this match.

In a topsy-turvy first set, there were unexpected twists and turns: first Thiem broke, then Cilic replied to level, and there were brilliant shots here, dire ones there. Cilic was certainly prepared to try and upset the odds, used the drop shot to great effect, and came to the net far more than he once did to disrupt the Thiem rhythm.

But the tall Croat threw in a poor ninth game, and the Austrian served for the set. Thiem was let off the hook when facing two break-back points and finally edged the set, 6-4.

Thiem used his momentum to get a quick break in the second, and although Cilic stayed with him for most of the set, a dreadful smash wide into the tramlines brought up set-point. The Croat saved it with a brilliant drop shot—a too-neglected ploy in this second set. He fended off another break point at the net, too, but Thiem converted at the third attempt, and served out the set, 6-4.

The Austrian, then, had a brief brain-storm, and Cilic went on a run of eight points out of nine, 2-0. Thiem, though, regrouped quickly, and levelled, then ripped three backhand down-the-line winners to earn break point. At the next opportunity, he converted—once again with a drilled backhand, 4-2, and went on to serve out the win, 6-3, in little more than two hours.

Thiem was rightly pleased with his performance.

“My level was good. I was very happy with the way I played from the beginning to the end.

“I know how to play in those kinds of conditions because in Austria, we have many days like that. And then from junior times and when I started to play professional on the futures in March in Croatia or Czech Republic, there were many tournaments with similar conditions. Cold, heavy balls. So it’s not really something new for me… So I like these conditions.

“The main challenge was to get the match tension again. Because, I mean, I was on fire in New York for two weeks, and then one week at home where I tried to relax but not lose all the tension, because obviously I want to do well here in Paris. I guess I found a good mixture, and I’m very happy with this first round today.”

He next plays Jack Sock, a former world No8 who this year had to come through qualifying.

Next up was Serena Williams, who turned 39 just days ago, and is going not just for her fourth title at Roland Garros but her elusive 24th Major title, which would equal the all-time record of Margaret Court.

She returned to competition after lockdown on the US hard courts, but worked hard to find her best form, playing no fewer than nine three-setters in her tally of 11 matches. After making the semis at the US Open, she opted out of her only clay event in Rome, and with such unseasonal conditions in Paris, it was perhaps little wonder that she looked well below her best in the early goings against Kristie Ahn.

A 10-minute third game of 24 points, countless deuces, and six break points, tested the tactics and movement of Williams, and in the end, she conceded the break, 1-2. The former champion was far from settled, sprayed errors, seemed flat in the face of the variety and speed of her 102-ranked opponent. However, Williams did break back to level 4-4—only to concede another break. Ahn would serve for the set.

Williams now upped the intensity, broke, and held to love. It was Ahn’s turn to serve to save the set, and she did it admirably, courtesy of a 29th error from Williams. It would go to a tie-break, and Williams edged the lead, 4-2, by the change of ends. She swept through the remaining three points for the set, 7-6(2), but it had been a gruelling 72-minute affair.

Williams began to look stronger, timing the ball better, and she took control of things with a vengeance. After just 27 minutes, she had set and match, 6-0. She swiftly identified what turned the match around so quickly:

“The biggest difference was just confidence. I just need to play with more confidence, like I’m Serena. So that was it. I just started playing like that.

“I think her level was so high in the first set that I just needed to lift my level more than what I did.”

And of her next opponent, Tsvetana Pironkova, who Williams beat in a testing three-setter in the quarters of the US Open, she said:

“She’s playing well, but I am too. I’m ready to play her. She’ll be ready to play me. It will be a long match, she will get a lot of balls back, but so will I. I’ll be ready.”

Last on Chatrier was another great champion, the 12-time and defending French Open champion, Rafael Nadal. He began his pursuit of a 13th title against Egor Gerasimov, a man who had only played 10 tour-level clay-court matches. And the No83 had never played a main draw match at Roland Garros.

So while Nadal was less than enarmoured with the new heavier balls being used at the French open this year—and the cooler, damper conditions—he was hot favourite to take his first step towards that record-equalling 20th Major tally of Roger Federer.

In truth, he did not look in his hottest form, and the tall Belarusian produced some challenging, big time tennis. Nadal was clearly finding it hard to get the spin and penetration he expected, but he edged the first two sets, 6-4, 6-4, and when Gerasimov fell in the third set and twisted his ankle, his brief advantage in the decider evaporated. Nadal advanced, 6-2, after a challenging two-plus hours. He will next play the 236-ranked Mackenzie McDonald.

Elsewhere, the No14 seed Fabio Fognini and No19 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime both lost their opening matches, and the Czech No15 seed Marketa Vondrousova, runner-up last year, was also beaten.

However, No7 seed Petra Kvitova and No3 seed Elina Svitolina went through, along with No5 seed Kiki Bertens, Sara Errani, Christina McHale, Katerina Siniakova, and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

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