They say a good woman stands behind every good man. In one semifinal Friday at Roland Garros, a good man stood behind another good man and pushed him to produce superlative tennis. The welcomed push from surprise semifinalist Marco Cecchinato propelled No. 7 seed Dominic Thiem to his first-ever Grand Slam final.
“I don’t think it’s a real breakthrough,” Thiem said to the press, sounding humble. “I mean, I played semis two [consecutive] years, so just went one step further today.”
But let’s be honest. Thiem was favored and probably would’ve won the encounter, their first on any tennis stage. Yet Cecchinato’s gritty, forceful and brutal, at times, attitude and ground assault felt relentless. The result thrilled fans inside Court Philippe Chatrier, at times so quiet you would have thought this event was a golf classic.
“He is a really good player,” Thiem began. “You don’t come to a Grand Slam semifinal by accident. He beat really good players. He has a very solid game. He’s going to be a great player.”
In his third consecutive semifinal in Paris, Thiem dug deep to pull off a straight-set win over the 72nd-ranked Italian, 7-5, 7-6(10), 6-1. In doing so Thiem became the second Austrian to have the honor of playing in a French Open final, following in the footsteps of Tomas Muster. He won the title in 1995 when Thiem was two years old. Muster, a lefty, was also called the King of Clay, as Rafael Nadal is known now.
“He [Muster] send a message to my physio because they work together,” Thiem said. “We have a special relationship because of the match we played when he made his comeback in Vienna. This was his last ATP match of his second career, let’s say. And we see each other every year in Vienna.”
Friday’s match reached the heights of greatness early and soared from there. An initial break from Thiem in the opening set primed expectations until Cecchinato fought to even it at 4-4.
“[He’s] bullying his way back in,” Jim Courier said about Cecchinato’s play, calling the match for Tennis Channel.
Thiem, who usually likes to hang three to four feet behind the baseline, was losing precious seconds in rallies because Cecchinato stood inside or on the baseline in an aggressive statement of superiority. That position is one Roger Federer had to learn and employ. He, too, had stood farther behind the baseline early in his storied career.
Cecchinato’s powerful groundstrokes and one-handed backhand reminded many of another French Open champion and player from Switzerland, Stan Wawrinka.
“I like to play against guys with a one-handed backhand because maybe some things are a little bit easier against them,” Thiem said. “You can build a point a little easier if you play some high balls to the backhand.”
As powerful as his ground game was, Cecchinato also feathered drop shots. That tactic opened the court for spectacular rallies.
Court Philippe Chatrier is the biggest center stage on the Grand Slam tour. It is designed for wide-open play and sliding on its famous terre battue, for those graceful moments we don’t see on other surfaces. There were many such moments Friday, still as graceful as ever, yet they illustrated how high-tech racquets and polyester strings have inflicted the necessity of fitness on the game. Thiem and Cecchinato ran miles over the course of this two-hour-and-20-minute match, the scoreline bobbing along with intermittent breaks of serve.
Thiem is 14-0 at Roland Garros after winning the first set. He won the opening frame on Friday with a change-up. A point away from the set, he served and volleyed, a tricky tactic in a critical moment. Risk was rewarded, as he then closed it, 7-5.
“Just outstanding tennis. Just outstanding court coverage,” Courier said, his voice rising in excitement.
Cecchinato continued to threaten, taking the second set to a tiebreak. He saved three set points, just as he had done against Novak Djokovic in their fourth-set tiebreak that lasted 22 minutes. Cecchinato won that breaker to clinch the Italian’s berth in Friday’s semifinal. The crowds went crazy, loving the battle on Friday, just as they had on Tuesday in the quarterfinals. But Thiem would not be deterred. On his fifth set point — after saving set points against him — he put himself a set away from the final.
“The second-set tiebreak was the big key to the match, one-hundred percent, because obviously he felt all the match from these two weeks after that,” Thiem told the press. “If he had won the tiebreak, he would be full power, for sure, in the third set. So it was good for me that I won it.”
Tennis has had its eye on Thiem for years, expecting him to bust through and break up the so-called Big Four. Yet Alexander Zverev took the reins out of Thiem’s hands, zooming to his number-three ranking and racking up trophies at top-tier tournaments. Thiem might have 10 career titles to his name, but none of them are at the Masters 1000 level. A jump over that level to a Grand Slam title would certainly set him apart from competitors of his generation.
With his first Grand Slam final Sunday, Thiem could still prove his worth in a sport where comparisons form the foundation of conversations, at least in the minds of fans and media.
Rafael Nadal will be Thiem’s opponent on Sunday. Thiem has faced Nadal twice at Roland Garros. In 2017, Thiem lost in the semifinal. It was not a fashionable day in the fashion capital of the world. He lost, 6-3, 6-4, 6-0. A thrashing it was.
Thiem’s first encounter with Nadal, though, was in 2014 in the second round, again a three-set thumping.
The final wouldn’t be the same without Nadal, because within days the Chatrier stadium is set for demolition and renovation. But all things are possible in tennis.
“He’s a big favorite against everybody,” Thiem said. “Still, I know how to play against him. I have a plan. I will try everything so my plan also going to work out a little bit here and not only in Madrid and Rome.”