They say a good woman stands behind every good man. In one semifinal Friday at Roland Garros, a good man stood behind another good man and pushed him to produce superlative tennis. The welcomed push from surprise semifinalist Marco Cecchinato propelled No. 7 seed Dominic Thiem to his first-ever Grand Slam final.
“I don’t think it’s a real breakthrough,” Thiem said to the press, sounding humble. “I mean, I played semis two [consecutive] years, so just went one step further today.”
But let’s be honest. Thiem was favored and probably would’ve won the encounter, their first on any tennis stage. Yet Cecchinato’s gritty, forceful and brutal, at times, attitude and ground assault felt relentless. The result thrilled fans inside Court Philippe Chatrier, at times so quiet you would have thought this event was a golf classic.
“He is a really good player,” Thiem began. “You don’t come to a Grand Slam semifinal by accident. He beat really good players. He has a very solid game. He’s going to be a great player.”
In his third consecutive semifinal in Paris, Thiem dug deep to pull off a straight-set win over the 72nd-ranked Italian, 7-5, 7-6(10), 6-1. In doing so Thiem became the second Austrian to have the honor of playing in a French Open final, following in the footsteps of Tomas Muster. He won the title in 1995 when Thiem was two years old. Muster, a lefty, was also called the King of Clay, as Rafael Nadal is known now.
“He [Muster] send a message to my physio because they work together,” Thiem said. “We have a special relationship because of the match we played when he made his comeback in Vienna. This was his last ATP match of his second career, let’s say. And we see each other every year in Vienna.”
Friday’s match reached the heights of greatness early and soared from there. An initial break from Thiem in the opening set primed expectations until Cecchinato fought to even it at 4-4.
“[He’s] bullying his way back in,” Jim Courier said about Cecchinato’s play, calling the match for Tennis Channel.
Thiem, who usually likes to hang three to four feet behind the baseline, was losing precious seconds in rallies because Cecchinato stood inside or on the baseline in an aggressive statement of superiority. That position is one Roger Federer had to learn and employ. He, too, had stood farther behind the baseline early in his storied career.
Cecchinato’s powerful groundstrokes and one-handed backhand reminded many of another French Open champion and player from Switzerland, Stan Wawrinka.
“I like to play against guys with a one-handed backhand because maybe some things are a little bit easier against them,” Thiem said. “You can build a point a little easier if you play some high balls to the backhand.”
As powerful as his ground game was, Cecchinato also feathered drop shots. That tactic opened the court for spectacular rallies.
Court Philippe Chatrier is the biggest center stage on the Grand Slam tour. It is designed for wide-open play and sliding on its famous terre battue, for those graceful moments we don’t see on other surfaces. There were many such moments Friday, still as graceful as ever, yet they illustrated how high-tech racquets and polyester strings have inflicted the necessity of fitness on the game. Thiem and Cecchinato ran miles over the course of this two-hour-and-20-minute match, the scoreline bobbing along with intermittent breaks of serve.
Thiem is 14-0 at Roland Garros after winning the first set. He won the opening frame on Friday with a change-up. A point away from the set, he served and volleyed, a tricky tactic in a critical moment. Risk was rewarded, as he then closed it, 7-5.
“Just outstanding tennis. Just outstanding court coverage,” Courier said, his voice rising in excitement.
Cecchinato continued to threaten, taking the second set to a tiebreak. He saved three set points, just as he had done against Novak Djokovic in their fourth-set tiebreak that lasted 22 minutes. Cecchinato won that breaker to clinch the Italian’s berth in Friday’s semifinal. The crowds went crazy, loving the battle on Friday, just as they had on Tuesday in the quarterfinals. But Thiem would not be deterred. On his fifth set point — after saving set points against him — he put himself a set away from the final.
“The second-set tiebreak was the big key to the match, one-hundred percent, because obviously he felt all the match from these two weeks after that,” Thiem told the press. “If he had won the tiebreak, he would be full power, for sure, in the third set. So it was good for me that I won it.”
Tennis has had its eye on Thiem for years, expecting him to bust through and break up the so-called Big Four. Yet Alexander Zverev took the reins out of Thiem’s hands, zooming to his number-three ranking and racking up trophies at top-tier tournaments. Thiem might have 10 career titles to his name, but none of them are at the Masters 1000 level. A jump over that level to a Grand Slam title would certainly set him apart from competitors of his generation.
With his first Grand Slam final Sunday, Thiem could still prove his worth in a sport where comparisons form the foundation of conversations, at least in the minds of fans and media.
Rafael Nadal will be Thiem’s opponent on Sunday. Thiem has faced Nadal twice at Roland Garros. In 2017, Thiem lost in the semifinal. It was not a fashionable day in the fashion capital of the world. He lost, 6-3, 6-4, 6-0. A thrashing it was.
Thiem’s first encounter with Nadal, though, was in 2014 in the second round, again a three-set thumping.
The final wouldn’t be the same without Nadal, because within days the Chatrier stadium is set for demolition and renovation. But all things are possible in tennis.
“He’s a big favorite against everybody,” Thiem said. “Still, I know how to play against him. I have a plan. I will try everything so my plan also going to work out a little bit here and not only in Madrid and Rome.”
NADAL’S OWN NOVELTY
The biggest upset at the 2018 men’s Roland Garros tournament was not Marco Cecchinato over Novak Djokovic. It was something much bigger: Through the first six rounds of play, the men produced a better, more interesting, more compelling tournament than the women. That hadn’t happened in a few years. The 2017 Australian Open was great on both the men’s and women’s sides. The last time the men were unambiguously better than the women? If you have a clear answer, good for you, but it won’t come from the past three years. The men have occasionally matched the women and usually fallen short.
At Roland Garros in 2018, the men were better. (more…)
WOMEN’S TENNIS: THIS KIND OF SOCIALISM WORKS
Socialism sounds good in theory but never ends up well in practice, they say.
“They” obviously aren’t watching women’s professional tennis these days.
Remember when Serena Williams continued and extended her control over the WTA Tour at the 2017 Australian Open, following a 2016 run in which she made three major finals and a fourth semifinal? That 2016 season was also a campaign in which Angelique Kerber reached three major finals and won two. Not a lot of sharing happened on the WTA Tour, and when Serena lifted her 23rd major crown in Melbourne, it seemed that women’s tennis would remain a monarchy run by Serena, not a democracy in which various players had an equal say in the year’s most important tournaments.
Then came Serena’s pregnancy, and in a heartbeat, the WTA became a vast expanse of questions and uncertainties.
We have seen on the ATP Tour how the injury-based absences of top players have created voids — not only in terms of consistent results at majors, but also the overall quality of play. This just-concluded French Open was one of the ATP’s better majors in a while, but over the past two years, men’s tennis at the Grand Slam tournaments has been largely dreary and uninspiring. Most finals have been numbingly predictable snoozefests, and without proven players to take charge in halves or quarters of draws, many random results — “someone will win because someone has to, not because someone is transcendent or special” — have proliferated. The 2017 Roland Garros tournament was like this. The 2017 Wimbledon tournament offered glimpses of such an identity. 2017 U.S. Open was the ultimate representation of this dynamic over the past 18 months. The 2018 Australian Open largely fit this description as well.
Missing the top stars the past 18 to 24 months has noticeably hurt the quality of the ATP Tour, so when Serena had to tend to the task of childbirth, everyone naturally wondered how women’s tennis would respond.
The results have been unpredictable, just as they have been with the men (hello, Sam Querrey making a Wimbledon semifinal; Kevin Anderson playing Pablo Carreno Busta in a U.S. Open semifinal; Hyeon Chung and Kyle Edmund making Australian Open semis; Marco Cecchinato making these just-concluded Roland Garros semis). However, women’s tennis has produced the compelling major finals men’s tennis has failed to deliver. Just compare the two Roland Garros finals we witnessed over the weekend.
More than that, women’s tennis is crowning the new champions men’s tennis is failing to produce.
Since the start of 2010, men’s tennis has created only three first-time major champions: Andy Murray at the 2012 U.S. Open, Stan Wawrinka at the 2014 Australian Open, and Marin Cilic at the 2014 U.S. Open.
Ever since Serena stepped away from the sport in early 2017, the WTA — in a span of five major tournaments — has exceeded the men’s total of first-time major winners this decade.
Jelena Ostapenko last year at Roland Garros; Sloane Stephens at the U.S. Open; Caroline Wozniacki in Australia; and Simona Halep this past Saturday in Paris have all crossed the threshold. If the men — #ATPLostBoys — can’t pass the baton to younger generations just yet, the WTA is doing exactly that, and in supremely entertaining fashion. What is even more noteworthy: The players at the center of the WTA’s balanced distribution of signature championships are removing significant what-if burdens from the sport.
Ostapenko is the outlier in the group, but Stephens has answered questions about who will be the next American player to follow in Serena’s footsteps — not to the same extent, of course, but certainly in terms of being a constant threat to do well at the biggest events in the sport.
In 2018, Wozniacki and Halep have both removed the eight most oppressive words in tennis or golf from their necks: “Best player never to have won a major.” The unpredictability we all expected in women’s tennis once Serena stepped away has been the happiest, most productive unpredictability one could imagine. The combination of entertainment value and redemptive stories has been off the charts.
The flow of life on the WTA Tour has been so cathartic and inspiring that after Wozniacki and Halep removed burdensome labels from their careers, there’s no similarly acute example remaining of a player currently in contention at majors who is trying to banish her demons. Karolina Pliskova, at 26, is the oldest player without a major in the current WTA top 10. As she gets to age 28 or 29, her story might become more poignant, but as someone who has made only two major semifinals and only one major final, Pliskova doesn’t have the accumulation of memorably painful defeats both Wozniacki and Halep absorbed before those two finally broke through. Wozniacki’s and Halep’s respective triumphs this year carried so much impact because the tennis world was aware how often they had climbed the hill, only to be knocked down to the valleys below. Pliskova’s story doesn’t carry the same weight — not yet. The WTA has written the two foremost feel-good stories it possibly could have authored in 2018.
The one still-active player on the WTA Tour who can legitimately claim to be the “Best Player Never To Have Won A Major” is Agnieszka Radwanska, now 29 years old. However, she is outside the top 25 and hasn’t been a top threat at the majors for roughly two years. (She lost to Serena in the 2016 Australian Open semifinals.) Among active players in contention at the year’s biggest tournaments, no first-time major hopefuls carry the promise of hope or the weight of longing to the degree Wozniacki and Halep offered.
In an age when so many sports teams — internationally and in America — are winning their first huge championships in their respective realms of competition, the WTA is in step with the times. That the WTA’s evolution has coexisted with a high quality of play and gripping major finals shows that this version of socialism — wide and relatively even distribution of resources — works in practice, not just in theory.
We will see at Wimbledon if it continues.
Testigos de la grandeza
Mientras veía a Rafael Nadal intentar completar el tercer set de la final masculina de Roland Garros a la vez que resistía un calambre en su mano izquierda, de repente, comprendí algo que me impactó: cada pequeño detalle debe darse para que un jugador encuentre el santo grial del tenis, también conocido como ganar un gran título de grand slam. No puede haber ningún accidente.
Ningún conductor ebrio, como el que frenó a Thomas Muster, ni un fanático desequilibrado, como el que interrumpió el curso de la vida de Mónica Seles. No puede haber ninguna lesión, como las muñecas vulnerables de Juan Martín Del Potro o ninguna distracción que pueda causar algún problema personal. Ni siquiera se puede sufrir un lapsus de concentración porque eso le abre la puerta a rivales hambrientos que siempre están trabajando para mejorar. (more…)