Matt Zemek

Recall the moment 11 months ago in Rome: Novak Djokovic destroyed Dominic Thiem, 6-1 and 6-0, in the Rome semifinals. Yes, Thiem had spilled the tank the night before in the quarterfinals against Rafael Nadal. Thiem’s hunger to win that match jumped through the television screen after a tough loss to the King of Clay in the Madrid final days earlier. Nadal always tries hard, and he tried hard that day in Rome, but Thiem reached a higher plateau and had more to offer in his (then-) 23-year-old legs. Nadal had won Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid and frankly needed a little added respite before Roland Garros. Nadal didn’t purposefully lose that match, but his body was not as resilient as Thiem’s was under the conditions. Thiem took advantage.

One night later, Djokovic took advantage of the fact that Thiem was spent.

It was hard for me to watch Djokovic dismantle Thiem in Rome and think that the Austrian could flip the script just a few weeks later… but where I clearly erred in sizing up that quarterfinal rematch in Roland Garros is that I didn’t follow my own advice. I didn’t account for the specific circumstances of a match, which are regularly germane to any assessment of the performance and condition of the two players.

This is the point which gets lost in analyzing so many tennis matches: The circumstances of each match are particular to a given moment in time. They might not change to a considerable degree in most cases, but there is usually at least one detail of significance which changes before each reunion between two players. When Player A wins under favorable circumstances and Player B loses, that doesn’t necessarily mean Player A is the empirically better tennis player on a general level. It can and often DOES mean exactly that, but on many occasions, a result of a match is less a verdict on the overall quality of the two players and more of a product of circumstances.

We know with the benefit of hindsight that the version of Djokovic which played tennis in the first half of the 2017 season was not a fully healthy player. We also knew at the time in Rome that Djokovic was in the midst of a process to try to regain his A-game. As much as Thiem was mentally fried in that Rome semifinal, the fact that Djokovic could pounce on the Austrian suggested that Nole was ready for Roland Garros.

However, as said above, I failed to give enough weight to the fact that Thiem entered that match at a disadvantage. 

More specifically, I felt that since the Rome match was so lopsided, the Roland Garros reunion would be extremely hard for Thiem to win. I discounted Thiem’s chances because of the clinically easy way in which Nole eviscerated him, not accounting for the circumstances of the Rome match to the degree that was warranted. To be more precise, I don’t regret picking Djokovic to win; I specifically regret giving Thiem such a small chance of winning.

Among the finer details of that Roland Garros quarterfinal lay the reality that the match was postponed one day because of rain in Paris. The match was supposed to be played on a Tuesday but wound up being played on a Wednesday. It became the inverse of Rome in that Thiem was a supremely rested player, not an overtaxed player. That freshness showed up in Thiem’s game, whereas Djokovic — as soon as he let the first set slip out of his grasp — knew he had a huge uphill battle to fight. He wasn’t up for it in his diminished condition. The circumstances of a given day and a given match had shifted dramatically to Thiem. As soon as the one-handed backhander “Bamosed” his way through a tough and nerve-soaked first set, his belief grew while his opponent lost trust.

This didn’t mean Thiem was an empirically better player on clay. It DID mean that Thiem took advantage of favorable circumstances.

That dynamic definitely carried into 2018’s clay season on Thursday at the Monte Carlo Country Club.

Yes, Thiem came into Monte Carlo off an injury, but the Austrian looked pain-free in a long and taxing two-hour, 40-minute match against Andrey Rublev in the round of 32. In a first match after a layoff, one should expect rust. Thiem’s ability to get through that that without pain — or defeat — was enough to suggest that on his beloved clay, he could be a factor this week. (Going into the Rublev match, such certitude wasn’t as warranted.) Thiem is a walking embodiment of impatience on hardcourts and grass, but it becomes very apparent that when playing on red dirt, the extra time he gets to set up for his shots makes his game fall neatly into place. His shot choices can still fall short of desirable standards, but the process of sliding into shots and preparing his body for each groundstroke is comfortable on clay. It isn’t remotely comfortable on other surfaces. 

One could choose a lot of stats from this match to explain why Thiem won and Djokovic lost. To me, the one which stands out is that Thiem committed only 12 unforced errors from his backhand side. In three involved sets of clay-court tennis with a lot of textured rallies and above-average hitting, averaging only four backhand UFEs per set is not merely good; it’s outstanding.

Part of that statistic can reasonably be attributed to Djokovic not using as much topspin or variety as he did when he was a dominant World No. 1. Yet, Djokovic hit with more purpose and consistency this week in Monte Carlo — not at the level he had when he ruled the roost, but miles better than what we saw in Indian Wells and Miami. Thiem, in the face of Djokovic’s noticeably improved hitting, was able to hold up well. He flinched in the first-set tiebreaker, but after that, he regrouped and steadied his ship. He played at a high level, which shows that Djokovic pushed him in order to get to the third set at 3-3 and deuce before the Austrian took over in the final few games.

This is where circumstances once again enter the picture.

Djokovic was as ready for battle as he was a day earlier against Borna Coric, but Thiem simply had more to offer on clay. Djokovic was not hurt by having to play matches on consecutive days. If anything — as he acknowledged after the match — Djokovic needs more match play and more opportunities to build a rhythm in these weeks before Roland Garros. Circumstances shaped this match — providing the aforementioned “one key detail” which is particular to each new encounter between two players — not from Djokovic’s side, but from Thiem’s side.

The fact that Thiem played his round of 32 match on Tuesday mattered far more than Djokovic playing his R-32 match on Wednesday. Thiem was able to regroup from the Rublev match. This doesn’t guarantee he would have lost had he played the Rublev match on Wednesday, but when realizing that he lost a tough and close first set, the physical climb might have been much harder for Thiem if he had played Djokovic without a day off.

As in Roland Garros, Thiem turned a rest day into his best day, a rest break into a fortuitous break and a quality result which sends him into Friday’s quarterfinals against Rafael Nadal. The plot twist for Thiem is that if circumstances favored him against Djokovic on Thursday (as at Roland Garros last year), they will once again cut against him versus Rafa, as at Roland Garros last year. It took a lot out of Thiem on a mental level to fight past Djokovic at a major. Nadal did not spend much time on court in an abbreviated Roland Garros quarterfinal against Pablo Carreno Busta, who had to retire. Rafa was farm fresh for the subsequent Roland Garros semifinal against Thiem, who stood no chance against the Duke of La Decima. Friday in Monte Carlo, Nadal — after another very short day at the office against Karen Khachanov — will once again be rested. Thiem will once again be coming off a taxing win over Djokovic. In that case, the better player also has favorable circumstances in his corner.

On Thursday, Djokovic did not have the favorable circumstances on his side… but that doesn’t mean he is less of a threat than Thiem to challenge Nadal more than a month from now in Paris. If anything, this match offered both neutral observers and Djokovic fans ample reason to think that Nole can be ready to stare down Rafa on Court Philippe Chatrier in mid-June, should they land in opposite halves of the draw.

The backhand still leaks errors and the topspin needs to emerge, but Djokovic has escaped the dark prison of Indian Wells and Miami in which he simply did not trust his body. This lack of trust is part of the diminished mind-body dualism every athlete must repair if it ever gets broken. Djokovic’s inner doubts came from many sources, one of them being a lack of match play and match fitness, but another central piece of the puzzle was his coaching situation. 

This week in Monte Carlo and on Thursday against Thiem, Djokovic looked like the full-throated, entirely robust competitor we are used to seeing. The game was not precise or fully lubricated, but the fighting spirit was entirely present. Knowing Marian Vajda is back in his corner gave Djokovic a world of inner refreshment. Though hardly on top of his game, Djokovic made noticeable improvements and came appreciably close to beating one of the three best clay-courters in the world (Nadal being No. 1 and Djokovic being the other member of that top three). The restoration process is only just beginning, but it took several steps in the right direction. With over a month until Roland Garros, Djokovic has ample time to be ready for Paris. 

Many observers (including me) felt that Djokovic was stuck and lost in March, and that the clay season was a lost cause. His timely and astute coaching change — back to a place of comfort and trust — has finally enabled him to get unstuck, which gives him a real chance to reset the dial on his season and become a championship-level player once again. 

Yet, the dramatic improvement in Djokovic’s ballstriking and competitive quality certainly lends more than a little credence to the notion that while Dominic Thiem took advantage of favorable circumstances on Thursday in Monte Carlo, Novak Djokovic could be in position to create an even more advantageous position when Roland Garros rolls around at the end of May.

Mayday? Mayday? The crisis atmosphere surrounding Djokovic has given way to a climate of pronounced optimism. Thiem won a match on Thursday, but Djokovic might have won something which will last longer — and create an even bigger ripple effect on the remainder of this still-young 2018 ATP season.


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