October 5, 2020
Even Dominic Thiem applauded Hugo Gaston at times during their five-set epic.
The French crowd gave their hero a standing ovation as he left the stage. They chanted ‘Hugo, Hugo,’ as though he had been the winner not Thiem.
In a way it was true. Thiem was the one who progressed. But the moral victory belonged to the underdog.
The 20-year old, who came into this clash ranked 239 in the world, had left a lasting impression on the tournament.
Gaston enthralled spectators and captivated Thiem too.
Domi said later: ‘I haven’t seen a player for a very long time with such a great touch in his hands, with drop-shots from another planet and sprinting hundreds of times to the net, so quick.
‘If he continues like this he is going to create a lot of joy in this stadium.’
Thiem won in five scintillating sets but at what cost? At two sets up he should probably have done the job in three. Instead he was run all over the court before edging it 6-4, 6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 6-3.
One sweet drop-shot after another sapped the Austrian’s strength. His failure to neutralise the threat early enough had Domi remonstrating with himself angrily.
When he claimed a set back, Gaston urged the crowd to cheer even more loudly.
By the time he levelled the match, Hugo was taking his epic comeback in his stride but the fans were still going wild.
There was a certain dramatic quality to the narrative. Gaston’s very strength – those devastating drop-shots – ultimately proved his undoing as they began to fall short.
But had lasting damage already been done to Dominic Thiem? Perhaps he can no longer be considered one of the favourites.
Look at the ease with which Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic reached the quarter-finals.
Nadal beat a relatively tame and respectful Sebastian Korda 6-1, 6-1, 6-2.
Djokovic defeated Daniel Elahi Galan with equal aplomb and cruised through 6-0, 6-3, 6-2.
Not a set dropped or even closely contested. The older men are fresh because they have remained more ruthless.
Thiem, in stark contrast, looked mentally and physically exhausted.
Let’s not forget he won that punishing US Open final in five sets against Alexander Zverev and experienced a draining emotional journey.
Yes, the fulfilment of a lifelong dream – a Grand Slam title – can be gruelling in its own way. Your entire emotional and motivational map is torn up and redrawn.
Domi may not yet have recovered and reset just yet. He faces a tortuous route to glory now.
Next up is Diego Schwartzman, who is in superb form and won’t lie down easily.
He just beat Lorenzo Sonego 6-1, 6-3, 6-4 and will be the fresher of the two.
If he can subdue Schwartzman, Thiem would then probably have to face his clay-court nemesis, Rafael Nadal.
And if Domi somehow found the resilience to reach the final, the great Novak Djokovic would probably be waiting.
It’s fair to say that Thiem is no longer a favourite for the Roland Garros crown in the same way that Nadal and Djokovic are favourites.
Sure, it’s possible things could start to go Thiem’s way if he can just hang in there.
Nadal faces a tricky test in the explosive young Italian, Jannik Sinner. And Novak won’t have it all his own way against the powerful Karen Khachanov.
It’s not inconceivable that Thiem could survive the quarters while one of his biggest rivals falls victim to an upset. Possible, but not likely.
Thiem can only control his own destiny and try to be more efficient against Schwartzman. Then rest up for probable battles against the giants.
And if he proves us wrong and negotiates all those challenges, Domi will undoubtedly have deserved Grand Slam number two and all the accolades in the world.
But when he looks back on Roland Garros, Thiem may reflect that the magical drop-shots of Hugo Gaston were his eventual undoing.
Not at the time, when he summoned just enough to prevail. But further down the line, where the colossal warriors of our sport were waiting.
What has Thiem got left in the tank? We’ll soon find out.
In the mean time let’s celebrate a magnificent tennis occasion. Another new young star has been born on the Roland Garros clay.
The Court Philippe-Chatrier came alive once more. Full of joy, as the generous Thiem would put it.
Two sporting gladiators and an appreciative audience. There’s nothing quite like it.
And of course such a marvellous occasion makes you think of Wimbledon 2021 and Centre Court.
Spectators applauding, cheering the all-time-greats and the new stars of the grass.
We can’t wait for next summer and the finest tournament of them all.
How about you?