When Catholics are blessed on their foreheads during Ash Wednesday Mass, the priest or liturgical minister now says, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” However, in an older time, the words accompanying the blessing were more severe and dramatic: “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” The words are a reminder of our fragility and mortality, meant to instill or maintain humility and a sense of urgency in the community of believers.
Dominic Thiem and Kiki Bertens don’t need Catholicism at the 2018 French Open — they already know they have a lot of work to do and must treat this tournament with the urgency of a career-shaping tournament.
Yes, it’s true that for the 24-year-old Thiem and the 26-year-old Bertens, this is hardly a “last chance gulch” moment. Barring a career-ending injury, these two players should get more legitimately reasonable chances to make a run at Roland Garros. This is not a case of a 29- or 30-year-old player getting the draw of a lifetime and having a golden chance to win an elusive first major. Thiem and Bertens have time to win the French Open. Their problems exist on other surfaces, where they aren’t nearly as comfortable…
… but that is the point: At this stage of their tennis careers, Bertens and Thiem rate as prime threats at Roland Garros, not at the other three majors. This loads a lot of pressure on their shoulders in Paris. It’s a good pressure in the sense that they have high expectations to carry, but it’s a bad pressure in that it can easily weigh them down. Then consider the consequences, especially for Thiem, a 2017 semifinalist: A relatively early loss would leave the 2018 season in tatters. It would create a barren spot in the one place where both Thiem and Bertens expect to load up on rankings points at the majors. They would both head to the grass season out of their element and low on confidence, heading toward a season without the kind of accomplishment they could hang their hats on.
To be clear, it’s not as though Bertens or Thiem have to win Roland Garros to leave Paris feeling satisfied in a few weeks. If Bertens could fight past Simona Halep and make the semifinals, she would rightly feel that she has achieved something substantial. Being able to make a first major final would be a dream come true. Winning it all? Exponentially more so… but at the very least, Bertens needs to leave France with the concrete realization that she reinforced her status as a formidable clay-court craftswoman. If she can achieve that, she can be at peace with her tournament and her season.
For Thiem, the outlook is similar to Bertens’, but with even more pressure.
Thiem has established a higher standard the past 13 months against Rafael Nadal than anyone else on the ATP Tour. Novak Djokovic has the best chance of standing in Rafa’s way in a five-set match, but in terms of observed results since early May of last year, Thiem is the man who has thwarted Nadal on red dirt in Europe. He might not be able to stand up to Rafa over five sets this year in Paris — as was the case in last year’s semifinals — but if Thiem gets thrashed in his first major final, he would still leave the City of Light with the knowledge that unless or until Stan Wawrinka can rejuvenate his game, the Austrian is the world’s second-best male clay-courter. Given how frail Thiem is on non-clay surfaces, he badly needs to win the bottom half of the draw and stand against Rafa on Sunday, June 10, even if that match becomes a rout.
Thiem could face a moment of truth in the round of 16 against Kei Nishikori. He sorely needs to avenge the Madrid final if he does indeed face Alexander Zverev in the quarterfinals. He could meet Djokovic in the semifinals. If Thiem wins all three of those matches, imagine the sense of affirmation he will feel. If he can’t get past the quarters and poor play holds him back, Thiem will shed a large number of rankings points. He will have no convincing reason to think he can make a charge up the rankings list in the second half of the season. His coaches might find it harder to get through to him, but if this Roland Garros becomes a total bust, Thiem might need to get through to his coaches and impart the idea that he needs to see new people.
Rafael Nadal is playing for an 11th French Open title, so in that sense, he is playing for very high stakes… but if he loses, he still has 10 French Opens. Novak Djokovic has pressure on his back, but his body might not yet be ready to deliver maximum results in five-set matches, and he also has 12 majors to his name. He has a lot at stake, but he also has a lot in his trophy case. If one was to identify a prominent player with a chance to make a Roland Garros final who has no huge titles to his name, Thiem tops the list.
Bertens isn’t a top-10 player — unlike Thiem — and for that reason, the stakes don’t fall as heavily on her back at this event. One might say that Simona Halep is playing for the highest stakes, an argument I wouldn’t spend time confronting. It’s an entirely sensible position. Yet, Halep’s Australian Open final did a lot to support the idea that Roland Garros doesn’t HAVE to be the place where Halep wins her first major. She can realistically win it anywhere. Roland Garros is more likely than Wimbledon, but not necessarily more likely than the two hardcourt majors.
Bertens? She has to make her stand in Paris. Most of her highly-ranked peers on the WTA Tour can win in multiple places, but Bertens doesn’t possess that level of versatility. This is why she and Thiem have the most to win — and lose — in Paris. These are the contestants playing for the highest stakes in France.