Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem first stepped on the court on Friday to play their semifinal match, on a crummy, cold, windy, on-and-off drizzly, interruption-filled, and downright nasty afternoon. How much weight can one possibly put on stats like unforced errors, double-faults, winners, etc., or patterns explored by the players as far as the Friday portion of this encounter goes? In my opinion, not much.
I mean, the conditions were horrific, y’all. Players had to deal with an unsteady wind that kept picking up in the middle of points, right before they served, or when they were lining up for an overhead, as well as with objects flying into the court such as hats and paper cups.
The immediate question became: Who would handle these adverse conditions with more difficulty than the other? The immediate answer seemed to point to Djokovic. Due to his slides to defensive balls with legs spread, for example, when the wind moved the ball at the last second, he found himself suddenly lunging forward or stretching sideways from that locked stance. He also had trouble with his toss on first and second serves. Thiem was not having a fine time with all of it either, but he did begin the match braver than Novak, for the lack of a better term.
Djokovic’s apprehension on letting his shots loose cost him a break as early as the third game. At 1-1, 15-30, on a backhand sitter in the middle of the court, he opted to simply send it back to the middle of the court instead of going for the aggressive shot as he would usually do. In that same rally, he had a chance to approach the net on a short ball by Thiem and chose to stay back. Thiem eventually won the point with a winner and earned two chances to break, which he did.
From that point forward, things kept going from bad to worse for the world number one for the rest of the set. Thiem, for his part, was playing remarkably clean. He finished the set with four unforced errors only (by my count), serving a whopping 82% of his first serves in (14 out of 17). During rallies, he was still able to apply variation to the ball with his backhand using his slices followed by either flat strikes or topspin angles. He recorded five winners from groundstrokes while Djokovic had none. Dominic handily won the first set 6-2.
The second set did not begin much differently, and Djokovic found himself down 15-40 in his serving game at 1-1, just like in the first set. In a throwback to 1960s tennis, he served and volleyed on both break points, and won both on volley winners. He held serve, which brought equilibrium back to the match. Then came the first interruption when he was leading 3-2 in games, with Thiem up 30-0 on his serve.
Following the break, Djokovic found his footing on the clay of court Philippe-Chatrier. Thiem held serve to get to 3-3, but Novak then played his best stretch of the match (at least in the Friday portion) to take the second set 6-3. He successfully did some problem-solving too. For example, at 4-3 up, with Thiem serving at 0-15, he slid sideways again with legs spread to a cross-court forehand by Thiem and made an error because the ball changed direction at the last second (as noted above). In the very next point, he was more careful with that same shot and carefully got behind the ball earlier, hitting three of those forehand slices in a row back deep and eventually winning the rally.
In the third set, with Dominic leading 1-0 and Novak serving at 30-30, we witnessed the best point of the match in which Thiem showed that he can defend as skillfully as he can attack. Djokovic had him on the ropes several shots in a row, but Thiem scrambled to get each ball back, finally backing Djokovic to the baseline on a lob. Two shots later, on a low slice hit by Novak to his backhand, Thiem pulled a wicked side-spin drop shot that not only Novak could not get to, but one that further curved sideways after the second bounce and careened backward as it rolled on the ground around the net post back to Thiem’s side before the ballkid finally picked it up! Spectacular!
Thiem could not break Djokovic on that game but did so in his next return game to go up 3-1. That is when the second rain interruption came, eventually leading to the decision by the supervisor to call the day off and postpone the completion of the match to Saturday. Soon after the announcement, speculation began floating abundantly due to (mis)information obtained by various sources, followed by mayhem on social media by fans of various players (yes, I do mean “various players,” not just fans of Thiem and Djokovic) who had 1,001 comments about that speculation, none of which interests me enough to spend much time belaboring it.
So, I will use just one paragraph to describe how I feel about the whole episode.
It was ridiculous. A detritus of hearsay. Dreadful guesswork. Dreck. Balderdash. Cantankerous social-media noise. Highfalutin innuendo. Febrile codswallop. Theories leading to nowhere, ideas popping out of nowhere. Fumbling of superlatives. Noxious accusations. Ill-willed single-player-fan banter. Festival of management failure. Impotent organizers. Schedule fiasco. Off-court slander flying higher than the clay on the windy Chatrier. Otiose conjectures. Waspish conclusions. Dross. And more importantly, a slap in the face of women’s tennis, considering that the four women who played intriguing semifinal matches earlier in the day ended up having a measly window of about four hours in terms of coverage and interest, before their stories were superseded by yet another off-court drama.
There! Paragraph over. Back to the tennis, on to part 2 on Saturday.
When the players took the court again, Djokovic looked determined to break back at once when Thiem made two unforced errors to go down 0-30, then another deep forehand error to go down a break point. Then, he came up with three amazing winners in a row (backhand down-the-line on break point to start) to hold and go up 4-1. But his three unforced errors in that game, despite holding, were no flukes. He committed more of them to get in the hole again in his next two service games. Djokovic took advantage of the first and came back to 4-4. Thiem saved two vital break points at 4-4 and did not let him break again.
Serving at 5-6, although he had clearly been the better player since they came back on the court, Djokovic played by far his worst game of the set, making almost as many unforced errors in that single game as sets three (Saturday portion) and four combined. Even with that, Thiem needed four set points to finally take it because he also continued his erratic play. Those set-point opportunities were basically handed him on four unforced errors by Djokovic.
It was also in this game that — for the first time in the match — Djokovic’s serve-and-volley tactic did not work. It had worked for him several times on Friday, and even the first time he tried it on Saturday at 3-4, 30-30. These were important points that went his way (see second set above), so it was understandable that he wanted to give it a go again here, to get to 6-6. He tried three of them, winning the first to save a set point. Two points later, he tried it again on his game point, but Thiem was ready and dipped it low to his feet to win it on a passing shot. Novak tried it again two points later to save a second set point. Thiem, used to it by now, nailed the backhand down-the-line return and forced Djokovic to miss the difficult volley. Novak probably went to the well twice too many times, losing the element of surprise.
As such, Thiem was now leading two sets to one, despite having squandered the break lead in the third set with which he went to sleep Friday night. He wasn’t even performing near his best. Djokovic remained steady in the fourth set. It’s a bit of a miracle that Thiem stayed in it despite getting broken twice. He even led 5-4 with Djokovic serving, a game in which he made three critical errors while attempting his favorite types of shots, such as the inside-out forehand winner and the low backhand slice sizzler. It was a disappointing game for Thiem and it carried over to the next game when he lost his serve on a double fault. Novak easily held and won the fourth set. At that point, Djokovic was still the better Saturday player, with Thiem appearing to be very error-prone (15 unforced errors in the fourth set alone).
Then came a bizarre fifth set. Neither player seemed to properly capitalize on the tumbles and falls of the other. For starters, Novak began with low energy, for one reason or another, and went down a break early. By the time he lost the fifth game to go down 1-4, his body language almost looked like he was ready to get out of the court. He smacked a few flat shots for winners; some went in, others out or in the net. On break point, he nailed another forehand for a winner and got back to deuce, and another rain interruption took place.
I have no idea why it took an hour to restart the match when the rain demanded no more than a 25-minute interruption at best.
In any case, Djokovic was tuned in a lot better when he came back on the court. He held serve and broke with a winning volley at the net. He raised his fist and genuinely looked pumped up for the first time in the match. When he went up 30-0 with an ace, he looked poised to equalize the score at 4-4.
Then, inexplicable things began to happen.
Out of nowhere, Djokovic lost four points in a row, consisting of three unforced errors and a double fault to go down 5-3. In the very next game, Thiem went up 40-15 and held two match points. He decided he would jump on the bizarre train along with Novak and chipped in four unforced errors of his own in succession to let him back in the match. He said after the match that he was “too passive” on those match points.
In the end, it was Djokovic who came out on top in this game of gifts, a game no one wants to win. When serving at 5-6, he squeezed in four routine errors on his groundies – two of them on game points – to hand Thiem another match point. This time, Thiem used his backhand slice to set the next forehand up and drove a hard, flat forehand winner to the deuce corner for a clean winner.
In summary, Thiem came out on top in a match that was largely decided on errors and bad streaks. Each player had for more total unforced errors than winners, with Thiem winning that particular battle on Friday, and Djokovic on Saturday (by double digits). Thiem won the match without playing his best tennis. In fact, the first set played under the dreadful conditions of Friday turned out to be his cleanest one. Speaking of conditions, they were much better on Saturday. It was still a bit windy and cool, but nothing in comparison to “Friday the 13th.” The last stretch in the fifth set was played under sunny conditions.
In terms of strategy, Thiem had the upper hand on Djokovic whenever the rally turned into one of touch and angles – in other words, finesse points highlighted by specialty shots. He mixed it up well with his backhand, spinning some, slicing others, and sprinkling in some drop shots and short angles for good measure which, in turn, made me wonder why Djokovic insisted on playing the Austrian’s backhand so much. Yes, Dominic’s forehand is potent, but it is with his backhand that he varies the pace and often sets up the winner on the next shot – you want an example? See the match point! I would think that Djokovic would prefer a steady-pace rally over one with slices, floaters, flat knocks and spins.
Thiem also adjusted on returns when Djokovic served to his backhand. He did not necessarily wait by the backstop every time, offering the wide serve to the Serbian. Especially on the Saturday portion of the match, he stepped forward often for backhand returns – something I alluded to in my piece on his fourth-round win over Gaël Monfils. He came over the top of some of those serves, sliced on some others. It’s not as though he did not struggle with it (see the 30-15 and 40-30 points at 4-5 in the third on Djokovic’s serve, when he tried both and lost both points). The bottom line is that he was able to either make the error or start the point from a favorable position.
I am inclined to say he may have been fortunate to catch Djokovic on a day (or two) when the world number one was not on his game, but then again, I would be just as inclined to say the reverse about Thiem had Novak won the match.
I am looking forward to the Thiem-Nadal slugfest on Sunday!