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.