French Open 2018: As Dominic Thiem earns third Paris semi, ‘every Grand Slam is a new chance’
Dominic Thiem is through to the semi-finals of the French Open in Paris
The first men’s quarter-final at this year’s French Open was the latest in what is promising to be a glimpse of the future of men’s tennis.
The ‘big four’ of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have dominated for Majors and Masters scene for close to 15 years. Yes, there have been occasional incursions at each level—Stan Wawrinka, Marin Cilic and Juan Martin del Potro have won at both—but ‘the four’ have created a near impenetrable glass ceiling, despite all now being in their 30s.
But in the last 12 months of so, there have been signs that another generation is gearing up for its turn—maybe not this year, but soon.
Of the last 10 Masters, only three have been won by the old guard, two for Nadal, one for Federer. More significantly, there are some younger names among the debutants: 25-year-old Jack Sock, 27-year-old Grigor Dimitrov—also the first new name to win the ATP World Tour Finals in nine years—and key among them, 21-year-old Alexander Zverev.
The rise of the young German in the last 18 months has been impressive indeed following his first title in St Petersburg: five titles last year—including a two Masters—and two titles from four finals—including three Masters finals—so far this year. Up to No3 in the world, he was seeded two in Paris, and touted as a future No1.
His opponent, though, the 24-year-old Dominic Thiem, may not yet have won a Masters, but he was proving to be a serious contender on the tour, especially on clay. Twice already he had made the semis at Roland Garros, and twice made the final of the Madrid Masters. With 10 titles from 16 finals, and the kudos of twice beating Rafael Nadal on clay—last year in Rome, this year in Madrid—many were beginning to regard him as a real threat to the old order.
He and Zverev were certainly locked in a promising rivalry thus far. The elder man, the super-fit Thiem with a one-handed backhand of match-winning power, led their head-to-head 4-2, including their only French Open meeting when Zverev was still a teenager. But of the last three matches, the 6ft6in German had won two, the last in the Madrid final last month.
Most significant, in terms of current form, these two led the tour for match-wins and losses this year, Zverev at 34-8, Thiem at 33-8.
And they brought to the table the kind of qualities that got the fans excited. Power, aggression, a willingness to come forward, able to pull off drops and lobs, but with contrasting styles, personalities, and looks. What neither lacked was fight.
If there was a question mark about fitness, however, it lay with the younger player. Zverev had stacked up wins through the run-up to Roland Garros. After a final run in Miami, he played Davis Cup, made the semis of Monte-Carlo, won Munich and Madrid back to back, and then beat David Goffin and Cilic to make the finals in Rome, where he won the first set against Nadal. Most challenging of all, he had come from behind in three straight five-setters.
He insisted that he was fit enough to cope—and his long-term training regime since he was 16 with the formidable Jez Green in control had certainly worked its magic. Almost 12 hours on court in Paris did not lie.
But it soon become apparent that Zverev had some stiffness in his hamstring, and Thiem was quickly running him ragged with drop shots, lobs and more. It was all square, with long tough rallies taking them to 3-3, but Thiem’s backhand probed and powered for two break points in the seventh game, and he broke with another cross-court winner. After 40 minutes, he had served out the set with an ace, 6-4.
As the second set advanced, Zverev stretched and rubbed his thigh, made uncharacteristic errors, and Thiem broke in the third game. The Austrian offered up a break-back point with a double fault, but compensated with remarkable reactions at the net, threw in another drop/lob combo, and led 3-1.
Thiem broke again, and the trainer came to tend to Zverev. He looked exhausted, too, but continued with a heavily strapped left thigh. He held his next service game with some big serving, but Thiem was ruthless in pulling him all over the court, and served out the set, 6-2.
The conclusion came swiftly, with Zverev increasingly unable to respond in rallies. He took huge cuts at the ball, some came off and some did not as he piled up a total of 42 errors for only 19 winners.
Thiem broke in the first and third games, but Zverev showed his spirit, coming to the net to hold in the fifth game. He serve-and-volleyed on break point at 1-5, too, but in the end, he could not hold off the inevitable, and a final backhand punch from Thiem earned set and match, 6-1.
The two embraced warmly at the net: There is clearly no lack of respect for each other, and while this latest meeting did not live up to hopes and expectations, it promised plenty for the future.
Thiem was asked before their quarter-final what he expected of the match. He summed it up nicely:
“Of course, for both of us I think we would have been very happy if we both went through this stage… He’s an amazing player. I mean, probably now the third-best after Rafa and Roger.”
He was then asked about the high expectations that many fans had for the future:
“That’s obviously nice to hear, and it means that we play good tennis, both of us. I think for me it’s time to move on to make a great step, because I’m turning 25. I’m not that young anymore. He’s only 21. But obviously it’s a big honour if people say something like that, and it would be nice if we can do it.”
But of course, there is still the not-so-small issue of the ‘big four’. Nadal and Federer have returned from injury and surgery respectively to dominate the scene since early last year, topping the ranks, winning the last five Majors between them, with Nadal favourite to win his 11th French Open this week.
Murray has yet to make his return from hip surgery, though is expected to play at least part of the grass season, while the long-absent Djokovic has been working his way back to fitness and winning ways through the clay swing, and was into his 12th French Open quarter-final, his 40th Major quarter-final overall, with an eye on a ninth French semi.
For the former champion, though, it was not to be as he came up against the unseeded Marco Cecchinato in blistering form, and lost a gruelling and highly intense four-setter, 6-3, 7-6(4), 1-6, 7-6(11).
The old guard, then, will not so easily be displaced, despite ranging in age from 36 to 31, and Thiem’s patient take on the situation spoke volumes:
“At the Grand Slams, there are the big four. And the last 10 years you needed to beat at least two of them in a Grand Slam to win, and not many players did it. Maybe it gets a little bit easier in the future when they are not that young anymore—or when some of them stop. But every Grand Slam is a new chance, and every Grand Slam the young players, we want to take it.”
Who knows when that may be, as ‘the four’ continue to push the age and achievement boundaries, but Zverev, post-match, was already very positive about Thiem’s prospects.
“I think he can definitely go to the final. It’s going to be between Rafa and him… He’s definitely playing great tennis. You know, I think one of the three best players on the clay court in the last few years, and right now especially.”
To reach such a final against Nadal, Thiem will now have to beat that fellow single-hander, Marco Cecchinato—perhaps just the boost he needs to reach his first Major final.
But a look at the Race to London shows that it is a 21-year-old who heads the field: Zverev. Their time must come—eventually.