Losing isn’t fun, but there are some losses which should cause athletes to lose sleep. The Houston Rockets shouldn’t sleep for several months after falling to the injured Golden State Warriors in the NBA Playoffs. THAT is a terrible loss. Dominic Thiem shouldn’t lose any sleep about his loss to Novak Djokovic on Saturday in the Madrid Open semifinals.
What do I always say? A lot of things, but the relevant Zemek mantra for this match is that “circumstances shape matches.”
Every match has its own backdrop. Many matches have similar sets of circumstances, but they aren’t exact replicas in every possible way. Every athlete arrives at a familiar match with at least one or two small details in a slightly different place compared to the previous year, or season, or surface-specific swing. Plenty of matches can be 98-percent alike, but no two matches in a given head-to-head matchup offer 100 percent of the same circumstances.
In this match, Novak Djokovic did have the disadvantage of being idle on Friday due to Marin Cilic’s withdrawal from Madrid. Yet, Thiem had the competing disadvantage of having a tough three-setter against Roger Federer. It wasn’t a physically bruising match for Thiem, but it certainly required a lot of mental energy, which is a source of depletion unto itself.
Looking at the way Thiem finished Saturday’s Djokovic semifinal, it seemed rather clear that Thiem wasn’t hitting the ball nearly as convincingly as he did for the first 90 minutes of this match, which lasted over two hours despite being a straight-set affair. Thiem seemed drained, and it is hard to refute the idea that the strain of playing big-point tennis against Federer and Djokovic in consecutive days — without the day off he would have had at Roland Garros (had this tournament been played in Paris) — took its toll.
Djokovic took advantage of the circumstances surrounding his match. He raised his level after an expected slow start, and once he withstood Thiem’s initial thrust, he managed the match as well as he needed to — not perfectly, as shown in his loss of serve at 6-5 in the second set — but well enough.
Djokovic has every reason to think he is in good shape for the French Open.
What about Thiem? He lost 240 points as a result of failing to reach the Madrid final. He still hasn’t won a clay Masters 1000. He goes to Rome knowing Rafael Nadal could be his quarterfinal opponent.
One could very easily say that life isn’t good for Thiem right now… but I think Thiem should be positive about his week in Madrid and his overall situation.
He continues to show he is the best non-Rafole clay player on tour. He did not disappear in the second set after losing the first-set tiebreaker. A younger version of Thiem probably would have lost that second set, 6-2. This version did not. Thiem is, to my eyes, growing as a player. His biggest problem in Madrid was having to play and beat Federer, then Djokovic, and then (likely) Rafael Nadal to win the title. Last year in Madrid, Thiem beat Rafa in the quarters but then had Kevin Anderson in the semis. His performance against Alexander Zverev in the final was disappointing, a performance much worse than against Djokovic on Saturday.
Thiem certainly carries a lot of pressure into Rome and then Roland Garros. Winning clay championships IS something he and his career both need. Yet, Thiem has to allow for limitations, and right now, Djokovic and Nadal remain the ultimate limitations for the rest of the ATP Tour.
Thiem needs to calmly evaluate what he can do better. Being upset at his performance in Madrid in 2019 wouldn’t be fair to himself… and it won’t solve any problems, either.