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Thiem kicks a stubborn Monfils

Mert Ertunga

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

Dominic Thiem came into his fourth-round encounter at Roland Garros with three four-set matches, lasting around two and a half hours each, under his belt. Playing an extended match on Monday, with the potential of facing elite opponents from the quarterfinals forward assuming that he wins, was evidently the last item on his wish list. His opponent was the Frenchman Gaël Monfils, as inconvenient an adversary as he could face under those circumstances.

Does the possibility of an expedited win even exist against Gaël on the red clay of Roland Garros under any circumstance, let alone Thiem’s? Probably not.

Therefore, Thiem probably needed to compartmentalize and take each set as a challenge on its own, and hope that he could at least come out on top three times in a row and settle for a straight-set win, even if the sets ended up being contested.

Having said that, this 6-4 6-4 6-2 victory that lasted one hour and 48 minutes was as close as it gets to the type of match Dominic would have desired if he had the choice.

For starters, he got to jump out to an early lead, courtesy of Gaël’s sloppy play. That allowed him to close out the first set in fewer than 30 minutes despite a late surge by Monfils that forced the fourth-seeded Austrian to serve for the set at 5-4 (from a 5-1 lead).

Monfils began the match as the server and lost a blank game by serving two double faults and committing two unforced errors. That is all Thiem needed as he jumped out to a two-break lead; it took Monfils until 5-2 to get his game going (he made nine unforced errors and four double faults in that stretch). Monfils earned one break back but succumbed to Thiem in the 5-4 game when the Austrian put his vintage game on display. By that I mean his trademark 1-2-punch combination that begins with the kick serve wide on the ad side.

He did it first at 15-0, leaving Monfils a few meters away from the ball when he struck the forehand as his second shot to the open deuce court while Monfils was trying to get back to the middle of the court from the no-idea-what arrondissement of Paris. Thiem served the same menu again at 40-0, set point, when Monfils barely got the return back from a place so far outside the court, again, that he did not even bother to get back in the court. He just walked to the chair while Thiem hit the ball to the open court to close the curtain on the first set.

The second set was more balanced simply because Gaël had sorted out his dismal timing from earlier in the match and was no longer giving points away as gifts. For those interested in visual examples (and have access to the replay of the match), a good example of how much tougher he was now making it for Thiem to win points took place at 2-2, 30-0. Thiem hit a deep return that forced Monfils to sail a defensive shot back. Thiem crushed the forehand to the deuce corner but Gaël ran it down and placed it back deep, balancing the rally. Thiem, surprised that the ball came back, hit a regular-pace baseline shot which then allowed Monfils to take charge and run Thiem ragged for three shots before finishing the point with a spectacular forehand down-the-line winner. That is vintage Monfils for you!

Thiem, for his part, remained on course with solid hitting, keeping the unforced-error count fairly low. He made eight, nine, and five of them in each respective set for a total of 22 errors, and I count more strictly than the official count which has him at 14 unforced errors**.

**This is for those who may not read my pieces regularly. I always do my own count for unforced errors, and this match proves once again why I should. When a player made a drop-shot attempt from a fairly comfortable position on the court and missed, the statisticians did not count those as unforced errors. They also tend not to count return errors as unforced errors whereas I do, if a player has a comfortable second-serve return available to him, for example, and he smacks it in the net or sails it deep. Also, when a player is at the net and the opponent has a standing shot at a passing shot, set with the feet, and misses a blatant chance to pass, I count it as an unforced error whereas most stats people do not simply because the other player is at the net (this particular one did not happen in this match). Finally, I don’t count double faults in this category, which some tournaments do. My numbers truly reflect the number of errors that the player in question “should not have made,” outside of double faults which deserves its own count as far as errors go, in my opinion.

The best-quality tennis was in this portion of the match, until 4-4. In that game, leading 30-0, Monfils served his first double fault of the set. Then, he framed a backhand because of an awkward bounce by the baseline. At 30-30, Thiem hit a deep return and nailed the forehand for a winner (similar to the “vintage Monfils point” above, but this time Thiem made really sure his forehand did not come back). Monfils sealed the deal – on Dominic’s behalf – with an unforced backhand error, allowing Thiem to serve for the second set at 5-4. Thiem held in a blank game to take the definitive two-sets-to-nothing lead.

The third set was more one-sided than the previous one, with Thiem taking control of the scoreboard early, as he did in the first set. He widened the lead to serve for the match at 5-2 when Monfils, on his serve in the previous game, made two consecutive backhand unforced errors to hand over the break.

I will close out with a comment on each player, starting with Monfils.

I have been a fan of Gaël’s tennis ever since he entered the ATP scene in the mid-2000s. Yet, being a fan of Gaël comes with a price, as I am sure many other Monfils fans will agree. He has mainly been content to play far behind the baseline and retrieve balls – which he can do as well as anyone on the tour – thanks to his incredible footwork. It is, however, frustrating that over the years, he has not added another dimension to his game. By that I mean the willingness to step inside the court more, or even develop the regular habit of following up his aggressive shot to the net when his opponent is stretched and on the full run. I would understand if it took some time and he did not do it immediately, but he is now a veteran of the tour for over a decade and it seems he is still sticking with the same game plan he was using over 10 years ago. What makes this frustration a bit more piercing is the fact that he has the weapons to integrate this extra dimension into his game.

The guy can hit a booming serve. He can turn to finesse and touch on a dime and hit a great drop shot or a piercing angle. He can hit a high, loopy topspin from the baseline, as well as the hard, flat scorcher. And he can do these things on both wings. Finally, his technique at the net is sound. Yet, he plays similar to someone who is a terrific baseliner, but not with much else to his game.

Here are four concrete examples of these types of points I will use to also make my larger comment about the two players. I recommend you look at these if you have access to replay, but if you don’t, it’s okay. I will paint the picture for you as best as possible because what happens in each point mentioned below leads to my larger commentary about each player’s game. The first two are regarding Monfils, the last two regarding Thiem.

1) The point that ends the 2-0 game (at 15-40) in the first set

Monfils serves, then follows it up with two solid forehands that put Thiem on defense. Thiem, who is far behind the baseline on the ad side of the court, responds to Gaël’s second forehand with a defensive backhand slice that stays fairly low, but lands short in the court. Monfils gets to move two meters inside the baseline and runs around to hit a forehand. He nails a great inside-in forehand that puts Thiem on a full-speed chase to retrieve it. At that moment, there is absolutely no reason for Monfils not to follow that shot to the net. It would have been a very low-percentage shot had Thiem tried to strike a winner (a passing shot, that is) from that far back in the court while completely stretched (he was four meters behind the baseline at least).

Naturally, he sails the ball back crosscourt for a percentage play. It’s not a bad scramble shot, but guess what? Had Monfils followed his inside-in forehand to the net, he would have had an open ad court and volleyed it away without much trouble. Instead, he stays put at the baseline and finds himself moving sideways and back, because that defensive forehand of Thiem ends up sailing to the baseline corner on the deuce side. By the time Monfils hits the next shot, Thiem has recovered and the rally is relaunched. It ends a few shots later with Dominic producing a forehand winner.

Now, here is my obvious question to the reader: Do you believe Thiem would settle with the defensive forehand sail-shot back into the court if he had it in the corner of his mind that his opponent was approaching the net? No. Under pressure, he would have probably tried the low-probability running winner, or even attempted a deep lob, making his opponent hit an overhead. But you see, Thiem, like other opponents of Monfils, does not live with that fear during rallies against him. Monfils’ opponents know that if they can just sail the ball back deep enough to the other side (anywhere) when they are in trouble during rallies, it will be enough for them to reset the rally, because they know that Monfils will likely not approach the net behind his aggressive hit, even if he hit it from inside the court (from where an offense-minded player would not have thought twice about coming in).

Monfils won nine out of 15 points in this match when he came to the net; four of those points lost were not because he made the wrong decision, but because he missed a makeable volley, which brings me to my second sub-point. He missed those because, in my opinion, he does not use this pattern enough, so it does not come naturally to him. He did not miss them because he is bad at the net or his technique is lacking. Being a good volleyer also requires knowing how to play the transition and do it enough times to feel comfortable with it. Just ask Darren Cahill, who commented in a recent Tennis with an Accent podcast on how today’s players were behind a step or two in terms of mastering the transition to the net: because they did not do it enough.

The last comment on this particular discussion: A blatant example of a whole match played this way by Monfils is his 6-1 6-2 6-3 loss to Rafael Nadal in the 2014 Australian Open. In that match, he played a ton of points in which he nailed ball after ball at warp-speed and relentlessly put Nadal on the run, but simply remained at the baseline each time. Rallies constantly ended with him finally making the error because, well, Rafa certainly won’t. The Spaniard was content to just keep sending balls back, without trying anything spectacular, because it was written on the wall that Monfils was not going to force him to hit a passing shot.

2) First game, second set, 15-0

In this point, you will see an example of a shot that Monfils has had in his repertoire since time immemorial, but has not used enough, in my opinion. In the fourth shot of the rally, he has to hit a forehand from the middle of the court, but from about three meters behind the baseline. He nails a winner to the deuce corner of Thiem who cannot do anything.

This is a shot that Monfils can hit at will, but one that he has strangely underused over the years (another example is at 1-0, 40-15, in the first set). In fact, Monfils can accelerate and produce winners from the forehand side from just about anywhere on the court**.

**Just to be clear, I am not talking about the obvious winner attempt on a short ball hit by an opponent. I am specifically referring to hitting winners when backed up behind the baseline, when the opponent least expects it.

One example of a tournament where he did use it almost to perfection was the 2010 Paris Masters, where he reached the final, defeating Fernando Verdasco, Andy Murray, and Roger Federer, all in three sets, before losing in the final to Robin Soderling, probably his best ATP 1000 showing in his career. For one reason or another, and I watched Monfils throughout the years many times per year, Monfils continues his career without using that particular shot to its full potential.

Now, the two about Thiem, and these are briefer, I promise.

1) Second set, Thiem serving at 2-3, 30-30

We often talk about Thiem’s 1-2 punch using the kick, wide serve on the ad side. Heck, I did it too, in this very piece above. I even called this his “vintage” play. But, make no mistake, he can use that kick serve to punish his opponent in the same way on the deuce side too. At first, it may not make sense as you read it, because you may ask how in the world can he push his opponent to the outside with a kick serve in the deuce box. Well, he does not exactly do it the same way in that he does not aim for the wide service line. The kick on his serve is so effective that he can land it to the “T”and make his opponent lunge toward the middle of the court to hit a high backhand (if right-handed). Then, on the short return, he hits the winner to the deuce corner the opponent just returned from. The nice part about this 1-2 strategy is that the returner has to change directions to chase the next ball right after recovering from lunging the other way.

Note: Another example of this strategy, if you are interested, takes place in the first point of the second game in the third set.

2) The two successive points at 15-0, with Monfils serving at 3-5, first set

This is simply a warning for Thiem for the rest of his adventure at Roland Garros. It provides a contrast to something his opponents can exploit. On the 15-0 point, Monfils serves a high-kicking serve to Thiem’s backhand and he tries to come over the top of it. It lands in the net. Would he have been better slicing it back? Maybe. Would he have been better waiting a meter or two farther back, so he does not have to make contact so high? Maybe. What I can say for sure that he returns better if he makes contact lower with the ball on his backhand. Case in point, the very next point at 30-0. Monfils hits a harder serve that carries more speed, but not so much kick. Thiem, with an impressive reflex, shortens the backswing and blocks the backhand return firmly, sending back pretty hard. He ends up losing the point, but that is not important. The bottom line is, his return was strong.

In other words, if I can notice this, most likely along with many others watching, his opponents will know it too. They will likely hit serves that force Thiem to make contact with the ball around the shoulder level or above on returns. So again, I ask. Should he step a bit back? Should he slice it back? These are questions to which he will have to answer on return games.

In any case, Thiem’s main mission was accomplished on Monday, thanks to a less-than-two-hour-long win in straight sets over an opponent who, on paper, looked like a danger to his gas-tank level for the tournament.

Thiem should – and will – be ready for the next challenge on Wednesday against Karen Khachanov of Russia.

Top-ranked male player for Turkey (1988, 1990) Member of Turkish Davis Cup team (1990-91). Davis Cup Captain, Turkey (1993). Played satellites and challengers (1988-91) Played NCAA Div 1 Tennis (3-time all-Sun Belt Conference Team) Tennis professional and coach (1991-2008) Writer for Tenis Dunyasi (largest monthly tennis publication for Turkey) since 2013 Personal tennis site: www.mertovstennisdesk.com

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