Matt Zemek

In the Catholic religious tradition I grew up with, the sacrament of baptism is understood as a moment of welcoming and initiation. A person joins the family of Christian faith and is made a new creation in Jesus Christ. Joining the family of Christians gives the newly baptized person the support and prayers of a larger community, but also the responsibility to live up to baptismal promises and the baptismal call to live faithfully. Baptism is a joyful moment, but a moment laden with a profound level of significance which is meant to endure and grow in the course of time.

Sunday afternoon inside Court Philippe Chatrier, Dominic Thiem received a tennis baptism from Rafael Nadal.

It is true that Thiem had played Nadal before on the world’s largest surface-area court — just last year, in fact, in the Roland Garros semifinals. Yet, Thiem was just coming off a career-changing win over Novak Djokovic in the 2017 quarterfinals. He had already and unambiguously forged a successful tournament. The 2017 version of Nadal at Roland Garros was imperious and imposing. Few people gave Thiem a significant chance of winning that match.

This year, the circumstances weren’t entirely different… but they were different enough to notice.

It is true that Thiem, by making his first Roland Garros final, had taken a clear step forward and attained a satisfying result, similar to last year. It is also true that Thiem picked up a win over Nadal in the clay Masters 1000 series — this time in Madrid. He had beaten Rafa in Rome in 2017.

The fact that Thiem had continued to bother Nadal in best-of-three-set matches and had powered through Kei Nishikori and Alexander Zverev en route to a first major final created the idea in some minds that Thiem might be ready to win his first major. He certainly wasn’t the favorite in Sunday’s match, but plenty of people gave him a chance. The foremost reason? Nadal was not at his best in this tournament, a notch or two below 2017 in Paris.

It’s not a criticism of Nadal, merely a comparison with his elevated 2017 iteration. I don’t think anyone in Nadal’s camp would disagree with that basic assertion.

Here’s the thing: Nadal didn’t need to be close to his best, except for the 15 minutes after the initial rain delay in the Diego Schwartzman match, when he took the court at 2-3 in the second set and sprinted to a 5-3 lead before play was postponed on Wednesday evening. Thursday, order was restored in decidedly different weather conditions which entirely suited Nadal’s game.

What might seem to some a criticism of Nadal is actually a rich compliment: The B-level version of Rafa was still miles above the competition through six rounds at Roland Garros this year, winning 18 of 19 sets in Paris, mortally threatened only for a brief while by Schwartzman. Yet, Nadal being below his A-game represented enough evidence, in the minds of some, to think that maybe, just maybe, Thiem could take the fight to Rafa and prevail.

With Novak Djokovic still sorting himself out, and with Alexander Zverev — improved but flawed — still learning how to move efficiently through the first week of a major tournament (he survived week one this time, but not in a way which left him fresh for week two), it is clear that in June of 2018, Thiem is the second-best clay-court player in the world. He has made three straight Roland Garros semifinals, now a final, and he — not Zverev, not Djokovic — defeated Nadal in the run-up to Roland. This firm No. 2 status on clay — for a player whose results scream “clay specialist” until proven otherwise — offered at least some evidence that the Austrian might follow his countryman Thomas Muster (1995) and lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires.

This next statement might seem hard to believe, but I don’t think anyone who either picked Thiem or predicted a razor-close match fully appreciated how hard it is to beat Nadal on clay.

Wait a minute, you’re saying — a guy who entered Sunday’s match 85-2 at Roland Garros, and who was a combined 21-0 in French Open semifinals (11-0) or finals (10-0), was UNDERAPPRECIATED?

Again, it seems hard to believe, but that is my impression.

We know that Djokovic, when at his best, can truly play a five-set match on relatively even terms with Nadal on red clay. We can’t say the same for anyone else. Roger Federer never could get to a fifth set in any of his Roland Garros losses to Rafa. Stan Wawrinka? No way — last year’s final was the beatdown this year’s final turned out to be. Thiem was certainly able to pick off Rafa in best-of-three situations on clay, but we should know that best-of-five is a completely different beast… and that fact seemed to elude a lot of people.

Thiem played Sunday’s match the way a best-of-three match should be played. He red-lined his serves, going for maximum velocity and typically hitting out the way he normally does. Thiem counted on his relentlessness and his natural comfort zone on clay — which deserts him on hardcourts and grass — to carry him, but he didn’t realize what Federer and Wawrinka and so many others have learned at Roland Garros: Rafael Nadal lives to make the opponent uncomfortable. Rafa revels in suffering because he knows the opponent is almost certain to suffer more, and without the same resources or coping mechanisms Nadal has. Against these one-handed backhanders from Switzerland or — in Thiem’s case — Austria, Nadal knows that if he can withstand the first few shots of a rally and get adequate (not incredible, just adequate) depth on his topsin groundstrokes, he will create a war of attrition with very small margins of error on the other side of the court, all while expanding his own margins considerably.

It is a time-honored formula… and it shows why “hitting the ball as hard as possible, again and again” is not a sufficient plan over five sets.

In a best-of-three match, the things Thiem did on Sunday could work; they did in Madrid and, last year, in Rome. They can’t work in Paris. Thiem was punched out, exhausted and overextended, early in the third set. Two sets of all-out hitting left him depleted, while Nadal’s focus on making Thiem play more balls enabled the Spaniard to sit back and wait for his chances. Nadal was the much fresher player in the third set, which brings up the point that even if Thiem had won the first set, he was still not in great position to win the war. Thiem didn’t have a five-set plan on Sunday, thinking he could carry his successful three-set plan into this contest.

This might seem like a fierce condemnation of Thiem, but it’s not. If you are shaking your head and not trusting what I say, let me clarify: Thiem came into this match with the wrong approach, but the fact that so many people gave him a legitimate chance of winning shows that a lot of human beings were wrong about this match, not just Dominic. In 2017, nothing was expected of him. In 2018 against Nadal at Roland Garros, a lot more was expected. Yet, you can never fully prepare for your first major final and all the pressure it involves.

As a measure and reflection of psychology — not tactics — one can appreciate the idea that Thiem needed to trust what brought him here to this stage. Why overcomplicate things? Why deviate from a fundamental way of being? At this tournament, and during this clay season, that approach helps Thiem. It doesn’t on other surfaces, but it led to a first major final and enabled Thiem to reach the goals he needed to reach this year. For 2018, and for a first Roland Garros final against Nadal, one can very generously — but also accurately — make the claim that Thiem did not have all the tools in the toolbox needed to beat Nadal in five sets. Three? Yes — he has already proven that he does. Five is a different beast.

That is in fact one of the central storylines of the men’s tournament at Roland Garros: How five sets represent a fundamentally different challenge. In fact, Thiem benefited from this very reality. His not-always-clean four-set wins in week one gave him a chance to polish his groundstrokes for the middle rounds of the tournament. Meanwhile, Zverev’s parade of 5-setters left him depleted for Thiem in the quarterfinals. If Zverev had been fresh, Thiem’s No. 2 clay-court status might have been toppled by the German…

… and that brings up one more reason why no one should be harsh or disapproving toward Thiem for this deficient performance and plan on Sunday against the King of Clay.

Thiem did not play the best version of Zverev. He didn’t play the best version of Nishikori, who didn’t show up in the first two sets of a fourth-round match. Thiem didn’t get to play Djokovic in the semis. Thiem reached the final without receiving a heavyweight-level challenge from anyone with the possible exception of Stefanos Tsitsipas in round two… and Tsitsipas is a 19-year-old still growing into his body, not yet ready to punch in the ring at Thiem’s level for four hours.

Had Thiem defeated Djokovic in a high-level semifinal, he might have entered Sunday against Nadal with a more immediate and conscious understanding of what it would take to dethrone El Rey, but going from Marco Cecchinato to Nadal left Thiem in a disadvantageous position — one he could not control, and a first-world problem, to be sure, but a problem nevertheless.

This, for Dominic Thiem, was not an end to his Roland Garros hopes. This is a beginning, a baptism, a new initiation for him and his career. This match was the true eye-opener, the match which should imprint upon his mind the need to have a better plan and an awareness to handle five sets of combat against Nadal. This should also be a moment when a formidable clay-court player learns to diversify his tactics for other surfaces and shed the label of a clay specialist. (He has won a grass 250 and a hardcourt 500, and he turns 25 in a few months. His record away from clay amounts to little more than bread crumbs.)

This was a highly successful Roland Garros for Dominic Thiem. He is the best non-Nadal clay warrior on the ATP Tour, and he checked the boxes he had to check to affirm his clay-court status. Even if he does fade in the second half of the 2018 season on other surfaces, he knows he can deliver on red dirt.

The essential question: Now that he has been baptized in a Roland Garros final by the master of ceremonies on a King’s court, will Dominic Thiem evolve?

The journey is just beginning for Senor Bamos.

Image source: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images Europe

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