Mert Ertunga wrote about the Dominic Thiem-Novak Djokovic Roland Garros semifinal here at Tennis With An Accent. I will talk about a separate issue: its significance.
As you prepare — without a day off — for a Sunday final (recalling 2015, when Novak Djokovic defeated Andy Murray on Saturday and had to turn around to play Stan Wawrinka on Sunday), I realize you don’t have much time to digest big-picture stories right now. Thiem must play Rafael Nadal soon; this story won’t have much time to breathe. It would have had more time to be digested and absorbed if Thiem had won on Friday evening. I realize I am working within a tight time frame.
If you are reading this piece on Saturday, congratulations! You are reading this piece in time for Sunday’s final against Nadal. If you are reading this piece on Sunday afternoon, you might be encountering a reality in which Thiem has already lost to Rafa.
I won’t write off Thiem — not after his five-set win over Djokovic — but I don’t give him a great chance. Let’s be honest: If you were to imagine a set of circumstances in which to favor Thiem over Nadal, this would NOT be it. If Thiem and Nadal had switched positions — with Thiem having played just once in the past four days while Nadal had played each of the past three days — I would give Thiem a very good chance… but that’s NOT the set of circumstances we are working with.
Obviously, if Thiem does pull off the improbable, what I am about to write below will be blasted to smithereens. You can pretty much disregard every sentence from here on. If Thiem doesn’t beat Nadal, though, everything below will remain in place as the tennis season moves to grass and the summer.
So, let me briefly state my case about the significance of Thiem d. Djokovic:
While this was a poorly-played match, it was a poorly-played match because of nasty weather conditions. Anyone can and should acknowledge that this was terrible weather for playing tennis. Thiem coped better.
We can debate the relative merits of the fact that Thiem won more because of Djokovic’s errors than by flourishing in his own right. That kind of discussion is never easy to resolve, so I won’t even try to litigate it. Ultimately, this was a prove-it match for Thiem. Style points were lacking, but he DID get the bottom-line result in a bottom-line business. He has now played Djokovic three times in the last four years in the second week of Roland Garros… and is 2-1.
Did he meet Djokovic in favorable circumstances or conditions? Yes he did, and he is lucky to have done so… but he DID take advantage of said circumstances.
Circumstances shape matches, remember.
Luck is a daily part of sports, remember.
Being lucky is no sin. Being lucky is no indicator of hollow or fraudulent achievements. The only sin in sport (germane to this conversation, anyway) is FAILING to take advantage of luck when you get it.
Thiem made the most of his luck. He has turned a run of four straight Roland Garros semifinals into two straight Roland Garros finals. Thiem continues to answer important questions about his clay-court acumen. He has reached clay-court tennis’s ultimate event — the French Open final — in back-to-back years, and this time, unlike 2018, he went through a member of the Big 3 to do it. He has beaten Roger Federer in two high-profile matches this season.
Thiem has made objectively evident improvements in his career resume in 2019.
In some ways, this makes his career easier to understand, in that he has solidified his standing as an elite clay-court player. Yet, if he does lose to Rafa on Sunday (and if you are reading this after the Roland Garros final), Thiem’s career will become MORE complicated, not less.
The reasons for the added complexities are good, but the complexities will increase nonetheless.
Consider: Thiem’s only Masters 1000 title came on hardcourts, in Indian Wells. For all of his clay-court prowess, he STILL doesn’t have a big clay title. Alexander Zverev has two. Stefanos Tsitsipas doesn’t have any, but the Greek knocked on the door in Madrid and Rome. Novak Djokovic won Madrid and was runner-up in Rome. If Thiem does lose to Rafa in the Roland Garros final, Djokovic’s full clay season would rate above Thiem’s — not by a large margin, but without too much debate.
The bottom line: Thiem — despite making clear forward strides and cementing his place in the upper tier of the men’s game — has not yet claimed the clay championships one might assume would accompany his sustained quality of performance. Thiem is simultaneously more steady and more reliable, yet still lacking the high-end achievements which would enable him to enjoy unquestioned status as a player on par with the Big 3 at every tournament of significance in 2019.
Remember: What I am writing applies if Thiem loses to Rafa on Sunday in Paris. If he wins, all this goes away. If we assume a Thiem loss to Nadal, the second half of 2019 becomes urgent for Dominic in a way it hasn’t been before.
Last year, Thiem’s goal entering the second half of the season was to simply show he could play deep into a non-Roland Garros major. He achieved that with his U.S. Open quarterfinal and a memorable epic against Nadal, which he came within an eyelash of winning. Thiem destroyed the notion that he was a clay specialist. He need to prove that, and he did… but the bar was set low.
Thiem beating Djokovic again at the French — after beating Federer twice, including in a hardcourt Masters final — complicates Thiem’s career in a good way by raising the bar on non-clay surfaces in the second half of 2019.
Now the goal is more than “don’t embarrass yourself, get to the quarters.” I think we can reasonably establish that Thiem needs to make a non-clay major semifinal if he wants to affirm his place in the sport. It is more likely to come in New York than at Wimbledon, but if Thiem can do it in either location, it would be huge for his career. With Indian Wells being the exception which proves the rule, most of Thiem’s accomplishments are still heavily stacked on clay.
Thiem keeps showing how well he can compete. He has shown over the past 10 months he can achieve at a higher level than before on non-clay surfaces. The second half of 2019, therefore, is a time for Thiem to prove he is a bigger threat at the non-Roland Garros majors. He isn’t a specialist — that label has been discarded and will never need to be reconsidered — but now Dominic Thiem must show he can be a factor anywhere and anytime.
That’s a great problem to have, a problem one “earns” when beating Novak Djokovic for the second time in three years at Roland Garros, and making a second French Open final in a row.