I subscribe strongly to the idea that every match has a story to tell. If anyone only saw parts of Tuesday’s match between Alexander “Sascha” Zverev and Dominic Thiem, his/her interpretation of the 6-4 6-2 6-1 score would likely be plain and simple: Zverev was injured, so Dominic won easily.
Unfortunately, that would be the penny-plain version of this match’s complete tale. It would also grossly undermine what Thiem accomplished in the first hour of this match. Before I examine that, let’s remember the reasons why most tennis fans were excited about this particular matchup.
Very little separated these two players before they entered Philippe Chatrier court on a gloomy Tuesday afternoon for their quarterfinal-round duel. The second-seeded German had a win-loss record of 30-8 and won two ATP titles in 2018, while the seventh-seeded Austrian had a record of 29-8 and also had two titles to his name.
Similarly, their head-to-head record, 4-2 in favor of Thiem, offered little help in stipulating any amount of dominance of one player over the other. Three of Thiem’s wins came on clay, but they were back in 2016 and occurred during a remarkable run of clay-court tournaments by Dominic. That was when Sascha’s game was still in its developmental stages — he was about to enter the top 30 for the first time in his young career. He undoubtedly stood far behind where he does now in terms of game and maturity.
Zverev did get the best of Thiem in their recent encounter on the clay courts of Madrid. However, considering how little significance the Madrid event’s results regularly carry in trying to gauge performances of players in the upcoming French Open, that result did not indicate much by itself either.
Game-wise, you could also put them in the same boat, in the sense that they mainly operate from the baseline and seek to direct rallies with their strong shots. For Thiem, that is his forehand, although he is perfectly capable of nailing a flashy winner with his one-handed backhand. As for Zverev, his two-handed backhand is the more reliable side although he can also accelerate with his forehand when required. They each have solid first serves, Zverev’s being a bit more penetrating than Thiem’s, and possess decent skills at the net, Dominic with a bit better “feel” on touch volleys than Sascha.
Naturally, they shared the exact same goal. It consisted of reaching the final round from the bottom of the draw and possibly – very probably – taking on the most daunting task in our sport, trying to hand Rafael Nadal his first defeat on Court Philippe Chatrier in the finals of the French Open.
One advantage that Thiem had over his opponent – thus the “very little” separation to begin this piece – was his experience in the second weeks of majors, notably in Paris. He reached the semifinal round in 2016 and 2017 at Roland Garros, and the fourth round in each of the other three majors. Zverev, for his part, was competing in his first major quarterfinal and had reached the fourth round only once (Wimbledon 2017).
There was one other distinction that could make the difference if the match lasted long. Zverev had to battle through three five-set matches to get to the quarterfinals, spending a total of 11 hours and 56 minutes on the court. Thiem, for his part, did not play any five-setters in his previous rounds and stayed a total of 9 hours and 29 minutes on the court, about two and a half hours less than his opponent.
That distinction, it turned out, was the one that mattered. Zverev said that he felt the first pain in his leg in the fourth game of the first set but did not think much of it as he was still moving well. He added that he had felt great coming into the match:
“I actually felt good today. I mean, waking up in the morning, I actually felt, Okay, I can play five sets again. I thought this is what it’s going to be like. I actually came on court. It was the best I felt the ball. Even in the warmup and even, you know, the first few games, it was the best I felt the ball all week.”
The pain increased, however, as the match progressed, and by the time we got to the middle of the second set, when Thiem led by a set and a break – more on that particular moment later – it became clear that the comeback was not in the books this time for the 21-year-old German.
This is where an important nuance must be pronounced.
It is essential not to chalk up this win for Thiem solely to the physical ailment of his opponent. That would be the penny-plain version of this match’s full story and it is paramount to avoid falling into that trap. Let me elaborate further.
You play with the cards that have been dealt to you. Thiem knew that Zverev had considerable mileage accrued on his legs coming into the match. He knew that in an extended match the pendulum would swing in his favor. His game plan needed to take into consideration the strategies involving a possible fourth or fifth set as equally as the ones needed to win the first. This is not an evident distinction, mind you.
Many players will, for good reasons, form a plan focused on getting ahead early and pocketing the first set. They can worry about adjustments later and only if needed. When the player and the coaching team discuss strategies for a particular match, the “how” of winning the first set will largely supersede the ins and outs of what the player should do later in the match.
Because of the cards dealt to him – his opponent’s possible tiredness and the best-of-five set structure – the Austrian had to keep in mind the benefits of playing for the long haul just as much as that of a quick start off the gates.
So, guess what Dominic did… or did not… do?
He did not go for those outrageous winner attempts from three meters behind the baseline as much as he usually does. Instead, he stuck for the most part to high-percentage crosscourt shots during rallies.
He did not go for the fastest first serve possible on most points. Instead, he went for a high-first serve percentage via placement.
Furthermore, he placed most of his first serves to the wide corner of the box, forcing Sascha to chase the return far to the outside of the court. The amount of ground Zverev had to cover every time to recover from those serves was astounding. I would imagine that, for tennis fans who watched at home, the camera had to turn so much to the side that the court probably went out of view for a second so that Sascha’s return could be captured.
Once Sascha sent the return back from the outside of the court, Thiem did not go for the warp-speed winner to the open corner every time. Instead, he followed it with an aggressive, but measured, shot to the open corner, adding distance to the overworked legs of Zverev, and finish the point in the next shot or at the net with a volley (example: the set point to win the first). In other words, instead of a flashy 1-2 punch, sometimes he opted for the a more reserved version of the 1-2 punch and punctuated it with a third shot.
He did not attempt too many drop shots or really sharp, angled “rollover” topspin shots. Instead, he went for high paced – but sensibly hit – crosscourt strikes.
It all worked…
Thiem closed the first set with fewer unforced errors than Zverev, committing only six compared to Sascha’s 11 – I hold my own count of unforced errors and they do not include double faults.
Thiem won 25 points that lasted between five and eight shots versus 10 for Zverev. He even won more rallies that lasted longer than nine shots than Zverev did (12-11).
He won 79 percent of points that started with his first serves – yes, those wide serves.
Perhaps a concrete example from one of the more important games of the match would help illustrate how judicious Thiem was in his process. It was when he served for the first set at 5-4. Here are the points he won in that game:
First point of the game: He served a wide serve and hit a forehand winner to the open court, your textbook 1-2 punch.
Third point of the game: He hits another serve wide, pushing Zverev way to the outside. Sascha, aware of the fact that if he just gets the return in, he will have little or no chance of getting to the next ball, attempts a low percentage, down-the-line return winner on the full stretch, and misses.
Fourth point of the game: Thiem serves another wide serve and Zverev is once again stretched to the outside (backhand side this time). He returns and Thiem directs the ball to the open court. Sascha, on the full run, gets to the ball but cannot put it back in the court.
Sixth point of the game: Thiem serves an ace, hitting the wide corner of the box, again.
Game over, first set to Thiem.
Now, it’s time for my confession. I admit that I have been critical of Dominic’s on-court IQ in the past. I have found him to make bad decisions on critical points or attempt high-risk shots when he did not need to, etc.
Not in this match, not on this day…
This was one of the smartest sets I have ever watched Thiem play. There is no doubt in my mind that Zverev’s physical woes are partially due to the above tactics applied by Thiem. Zverev would have probably loved to see the version of Thiem that would go for high-octane winners from behind the baseline and cut the points short. But not on this day.
There was a specific moment in the second set when Zverev made his last stand. He just lost his serve in the previous game and was trying to break right back at 1-2. Dominic went up 30-15 and seemed to be in control. Then, in a rare streak of two bad points in a row, he made an ill-advised drop-shot attempt that landed in the net and followed that with a double fault. He found himself down a break point.
One of the best points of the match took place on that break point, one in which Zverev did all the running and Thiem did all the directing. It ended with Thiem slamming away a ball on top of the net while an exhausted Zverev could only watch. He hit seven shots in that rally, five of which he had to run while sprinting.
After saving that break point, Thiem turned mean, so to speak. He hit another wide serve at deuce and followed that up with a drop shot that made Sascha sprint diagonally from the outside of the court, where he returned on the deuce side to the net on the opposite side of the court. Zverev got to it and put it back in the court, but Thiem passed him down the line at the net. Zverev had to cover a massive amount of distance on those two points. The end result was Thiem holding a chance to confirm the break.
He did, by hitting another wide serve and following it up with another guided shot to the open corner. He finished the point with an open-court volley.
Zverev bent down and grabbed his legs, massaging them. I felt that was when the curtains fell for him and I believe that is the moment he was referring to when he said the following: “You know, each game and each slide, I was getting worse and worse. Middle of the second set, the pain was too much.”
He said that he wanted to finish the match anyway, although he knew he was not going to win because he wanted to “give the credit to Dominic” by not retiring. “He deserves to be in the semifinals,” he added.
Credit to Zverev for a terrific run to the quarterfinals, one that he hopes has put to rest questions about his prowess in the majors:
“As I said, there is a lot of talk of me not being able to play five sets, not being able to play long matches,” he said. “I think I have showed that I can this week. I think everybody can stop talking about it, I think, now.”
However, the day belongs to Thiem for coming up with a clever game plan and executing it to perfection. When asked about his 2018 version versus the last two years, Thiem was straightforward in his answer:
“I’m a better player in general, for sure,” he said. “I think this year I’m physically and mentally fresher than I have been the last two years. I know how to handle a Grand Slam now.”
“I always knew how to play on clay, but I think that now I’m just making less stupid mistakes.”
You can always expect a genuine response from Dominic. That is one of the many reasons why he is well-respected by his peers and loved by tennis fans.
Tuesday, nevertheless, his on-court IQ and discipline led him to victory, and that should be the center of attention when it comes to his quarterfinal match, certainly more than his pleasant personality or Sascha’s injury.