Remember when Novak Djokovic lost to Stefanos Tsitsipas in Toronto? At that precise moment, how many tennis fans felt confident about Djokovic’s U.S. Open prospects? Maybe a lot — or more precisely, maybe a lot more than the loss might have suggested.
We know that even the best players have “off days.” We also know that for the elite players, especially the Big 3, losses are constantly shrugged off. The legends regularly manage to find their game at the majors and summon their best stuff when it really counts. Yet, Djokovic’s 2018 season was marked by so many bumps in the road — and his memorable semifinal win over Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon was reflective of that pattern — to the point that one could have viewed his loss to Tsitsipas as cause for concern. Even in Cincinnati, Djokovic did not play great tennis for most of the week…
… but he survived.
Then, in the semifinals against Marin Cilic and especially in the final against Roger Federer, he feasted. The dominant force who put the rest of men’s tennis at his feet in 2015 and the first half of 2016 returned. That player was then seen in New York, clobbering Kei Nishikori and Juan Martin del Potro on Championship Weekend at the U.S. Open to bag major title No. 14, tying Pete Sampras.
The point of this Djokovic story: The loss in Toronto was not an alarm bell. It was an early exit which made winning his first Cincinnati title a much more realistic proposition. Had Djokovic beaten Tsitsipas and played deep into Toronto, the idea of winning six matches the next week in Ohio would have been much harder to buy. Winning Cincy, and beating Federer in the final there after three losses to the Swiss in the same situation, fueled Djokovic for the U.S. Open.
A loss represents, in an immediate sense, the closing of a door at one tennis tournament… but great players can turn that closing of a door into an opening somewhere else. Djokovic did that.
Now Dominic Thiem can do the same.
Thiem was pushed out of the Shanghai Masters in his first match on Tuesday, losing to fast-court formula finder Matthew Ebden. The Australian pushed Roger Federer on Halle grass earlier this year. He very nearly beat Kevin Anderson in the Tokyo indoor stop last week. He carried that form into China and left Thiem “Shanghaied.”
Anyone who follows men’s tennis was interested in how Thiem would fare on a faster hardcourt surface. He didn’t play poorly in this match, but he ran into a hot player. That happens. Thiem — who dismantled the once-reasonable notion that he is a clay-court specialist with his U.S. Open run and his performance against Nadal in the quarterfinals — cannot be viewed dimly after this loss. His level of play didn’t warrant such a cruel verdict.
The key for the Austrian is — like Djokovic when traveling from Toronto to Cincinnati — to enable the closing of one door to lead to an opening of another.
The brief stay in Shanghai enables Thiem to go back to Europe and gear up for the indoor stretch run to the season. Of note is the looming double possibility that both Nadal and Roger Federer will both skip Bercy. Maybe one will play, but probably not both, and even if both do play, they are unlikely to be at their best. Federer, to be blunt, probably has to lose early in Basel to even consider playing Bercy before the ATP Finals, and even then, he might skip France to prepare for London. Nadal doesn’t have a Davis Cup Final to prepare for since Spain lost to France, but with the 2019 Australian Open down the road, he might choose (wisely in my mind) to reduce hardcourt strain on his knees and not include Bercy on his schedule. Again, even if Nadal plays in Paris, one should not expect him to be in top form.
You can see where this is going: If Jack Sock and Filip Krajinovic could meet in the 2017 Bercy final, it is more than realistic for Thiem — having not overplayed the past few weeks — to make a deep run in Bercy. Avoiding Djokovic in the quarterfinals will be important, but assuming the 25-year-old gets that bit of luck in the draw, this could be the hardcourt Masters event he can pounce on.
It is worth noting that Thiem might need Bercy for ATP Race to London points. Should Kei Nishikori and/or John Isner do well in the coming weeks (though Isner isn’t playing Shanghai, which cripples his push for London), Thiem will need to get at least some work done to maintain his No. 8 position. To that extent, Bercy figures to matter for him.
Yet, I would submit the view that winning a hardcourt Masters 1000 title would matter a lot more than punching a ticket to the O2 Arena in November. Tasting success at a high-point hardcourt event would represent a bigger prize than getting to London and losing in the round-robin stage. A Bercy title, or even a final — given that such an achievement would come within the confines of regular tour play (whereas the year-end championships are a separate, standalone event in their structure) — might boost Thiem’s hopes for 2019 in ways that the ATP Finals might not.
Dominic Thiem has no reason to hang his head. One door closed in Shanghai, but another could open in Paris… if he is ready for the challenge.
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