Full disclosure: When the Roland Garros draw came out, I thought Dominic Thiem would be in big trouble against Kei Nishikori if the two men met in the fourth round. I thought playing Lyon would come back to bite Thiem. I thought a solid performance in Rome, on top of a Monte Carlo final, augured well for Nishikori, who has shown to the global tennis community that he can be extremely effective on clay. A match he didn’t win — that memorable Madrid final against Rafael Nadal in 2014 — marked the height of his clay-court acumen.
Maybe that is part of the problem for Kei… and definitely, that’s something I did not weigh as heavily as I should have.
I will also say this: As soon as Nishikori got roped into a complicated five-setter against Benoit Paire in the second round of this tournament, the idea that Nishikori would steadily build toward the Thiem match was undercut. It is true that Nishikori rebounded to dismantle Gilles Simon in round three, but the highly scenic route against Paire — deep into an uncertain fifth set — caused Nishikori to do what he can’t afford to do in the first week of a major: Work a lot more than necessary.
If anyone on the ATP Tour has to find ways to efficiently win matches, it’s Nishikori. Few players are more injury-prone, few more precariously placed in positions where a wrist injury could flare up at any time. The Paire match was not a marathon — it lasted just three hours — but it required a lot of serves, a lot of high-stress points, and a lot of responses to bad patches of play. Was an easy win over Simon enough to dispel doubts and create the expectation that Sunday would become Kei’s big moment? Clearly not. Thiem’s hitting — the force of his shots, but also the force of his intensity — existed on a far higher plane than anything Nishikori had previously seen at this tournament. Nishikori needed to be ready from the start in this match. He plainly wasn’t.
His opponent brushed aside the worries about Lyon and established himself as the noticeably superior player. It is notable that Thiem took charge of this match — he lost the second set in each of his previous two matches, but not on Sunday. Yet, it is paradoxically even more impressive how he regrouped after his lapses against Nishikori.
Thiem gave away the third set with a horrible series of points, serving at 5-6. He could not afford to let three nightmarish minutes flow into the fourth set. He didn’t. He steadied the ship on serve and broke for a 4-3 lead when he crushed a weak second serve by Kei for a screaming crosscourt forehand winner. That represented one primary instance in which Thiem overcame himself. The second instance sealed the match… and was much more eye-catching.
On match point, Thiem had an easy crosscourt forehand well inside the court (near the service line) but somehow pushed it wide. That kind of miss in such a big situation — against an opponent who, while not consistent, had gotten his teeth fully into the match — can easily mess with an athlete’s mind.
On the next point, Thiem hit a ferocious winner. His aggression makes him look bad on grass and hardcourts, but on clay, the trust in his game — and his body — is evident. That trust guided him home, and now Thiem can avenge his Madrid final loss to Alexander Zverev in Tuesday’s quarterfinals.
Zverev was comprehensively better than Thiem in Spain, and yet — counterintuitively — Thiem should be expected to win. This hardly rates as a guarantee. One could definitely imagine an emboldened Zverev — after a third straight 5-set comeback win — storming the gate in the first few sets in an attempt to win a match efficiently. Yet, that’s what Nishikori realistically needed to achieve on Sunday, and he didn’t have the staying power of Thiem from the back of the court. Where Zverev and Nishikori most conspicuously differ from each other is on serve. Zverev can load up on cheap points — and will need to against Thiem. Nishikori’s serve, as has been well documented for years, can’t rescue him if the other parts of his game (from the ground) are misfiring.
Zverev, despite his enormous accumulation of mileage, can beat Thiem if his first serve is electric on Tuesday. Yet, if he can’t attain a very high standard with his first ball, the German must absorb the power of an opponent who owns a comfort zone on clay. This leads us to the final, central aspect of this upcoming quarterfinal: Thiem’s nerves.
Thiem’s ability to shrug off that match-point miss against Nishikori — closing out the fourth set and avoiding a more complicated match — reveals a level of stability Zverev’s previous opponents have lacked. Damir Dzumhur and Karen Khachanov both had Zverev on the ropes but made a series of poor decisions late in those matches to give Sascha a lifeline. If this match goes into a fourth or fifth set, and Zverev is physically struggling (he acquired blisters on his feet in the Khachanov match, if not earlier), Thiem SHOULD have the upper hand. How the Austrian closed down Nishikori should give him the belief needed to finish the job and advance to a third straight Roland Garros semifinal.
Thiem’s one source of doubt on this point: how poorly he handled the Madrid final.
Thiem came into that match as the more rested player. He came into that match having dismissed Rafael Nadal. Yet, he played a jittery match and never allowed his comfort on clay to shine through. Being the favorite then was an albatross. However, if that match clears Thiem’s mind on Tuesday, the Austrian will be grateful for the lesson it imparted.
It’s a lesson which could give Dominic Thiem enough belief to write a significant new chapter in his career at this Roland Garros tournament.
Source: Jeff Gross/Getty Images
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…)