Novak Djokovic arrived into his French Open semifinal with Dominic Thiem having made serene progress through the draw. He’d spent under nine hours on the court and hadn’t dropped a set in dispatching Hubert Hurkacz, Henri Laaksonen, Salvatore Caruso, Jan-Lennard Struff and Alexander Zverev. But that progress came to a crashing halt at the hands of 2018 runner-up Dominic Thiem in conditions that were far enough from ideal as to be almost unplayable.
In howling wind, that was blowing loose clay across the court, Thiem came out swinging whilst Djokovic was visibly disheartened. The Austrian broke to 15 in the third game of the match as Djokovic dumped a backhand into the net. The top seed was reluctant to continue play at that point, more than once asking the umpire at what point the organisers would step in to postpone the match given the wind. But the answer was not to his liking and nor was the direction of the match.
Down 2-4, Djokovic played an awful game to be broken to love, unable to trust his usually reliable game from the back of the court in the screeching wind. His forays to the net were met with little more success and the Serbian looked lost. Thiem was in no mood to be merciful. Driving through the ball, and Djokovic’s defences, he was encouraged by his opponent’s evident discomfort and he stormed to the first set for the loss of just two games.
In the second, Djokovic once again found himself under pressure again down 15-40. Perhaps in desperation, perhaps courageously, he twice served-and-volleyed and was rewarded for his bravery. He saved both break points and held serve to steady the ship. But he could get nowhere near the Thiem serve. The fourth seed had dropped just one point from the line in the first set and he continued his dominance behind his serve in the second.
Embed from Getty ImagesBut not for nothing does Djokovic hold three of the four Grand Slams and the world #1 ranking. He dug in to keep holding serve in the second, aided by the opportunity to clear his mind during a brief rain delay. And then, suddenly, he found another gear. He began to dictate the play broke the Thiem serve in the eighth game of the set to take a 5-3 lead. His chance to level the match had arrived and he did not squander it, serving it out to 15 in the gloom.
Thiem, undeterred by the setback, came again. An exquisitely carved drop shot saw him emerge victorious from a thrilling rally to earn a break point. Djokovic fended him off, but it was the Austrian who was now clearly in the ascendancy. He held serve comfortably and then forced break points again in Djokovic’s next service game. This time he took them to move out into a 3-1 lead, only to see his momentum halted by heavy rain, which forced both players off the court for the second time in the match.
He held serve on the restart, but thereafter Djokovic reasserted himself to get the set back on serve, reeling off three straight games. Pressing to seize control himself, the Serbian had two break points in the eighth game of the set, but Thiem held firm. And then, with a tiebreak looming, Thiem pounced. Taking full advantage of some loose shots from the Djokovic racquet in the 12th game of the set, Thiem broke through to take a two-sets-to-one lead, much to the world #1’s disgust.
At the start of the fourth, he channelled that anger into some excellent tennis, breaking the Thiem serve early thanks to some excellent defensive play that wore the Austrian down. But a rather fortunate net cord, that took the ball over Djokovic’s head and beyond him, brought Thiem back on level terms immediately in the fourth set in what was becoming an increasingly tense encounter for both men. And with the wind picking up again, Djokovic broke through again.
But he was unable to press his advantage. Thiem, refusing to surrender his interest in the set, again broke back. It was a match in which neither man was playing anything close to his best tennis. Rather it had become in no small part a battle of wills in which neither man dared give an inch. It was Thiem who blinked first. Two missed forehands followed by a double fault gave Djokovic the chance to serve to the match the distance and he duly obliged.
Both men squandered early chances to break in the decider, before Thiem struck to take a 3-1 lead. Djokovic, unwilling to go quietly into the night, fought back with all his considerable might, but Thiem held him off until another rain delay forced the players off-court again. When they returned, Djokovic again looked the sharper, holding serve from a perilous position before breaking back. But with the match seemingly back within his grasp, he collapsed.
An ace brought him to within two points of the levelling the match, before three errors off the ground and a double fault saw him throw away his advantage and hand Thiem the chance to serve for the match. And finally, after nearly four hours of riveting, if not always technically brilliant, play, the Austrian had his chance. But a match of such drama was never likely to end straightforwardly. Two match points came and went for Thiem before Djokovic forced a break point. He took it.
The Serbian held serve to at last draw level in the fifth, throwing down the gauntlet to the world #4. Thiem answered with a hold to love to leave his opponent serving to stay in the match once more. The first point went the way of the Austrian. Fine play at the net brought Djokovic the second. A smash gave him the third, but Thiem bludgeoned a forehand-return winner to come to within two points of the final. Djokovic conjuring the spirit of players past got to game point with another volleyed winner, but a backhand sailed wide to peg him back to deuce.
Both men struggled to gain the decisive advantage in the game, before Djokovic dumped a forehand into the net to give Thiem a third match point. This time for Djokovic there was to be no escape as the Austrian hammered a forehand into the open court to step into his second Roland Garros final. There, Rafael Nadal awaits.
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