June 8, 2019
Dominic Thiem will play Rafael Nadal in a repeat of last year’s Roland Garros final after defeating Novak Djokovic 6-2, 3-6, 7-5, 5-7, 7-5.
Djokovic won’t become the second man to hold all four Grand Slam titles simultaneously on two separate occasions. Not this year, anyway.
He hit the heights for certain spells but couldn’t sustain his quality against a determined opponent.
In truth, neither man could maintain their best levels for very long in a remarkable two days of twists and turns.
But Thiem was a deserved winner, nevertheless. He had the upper hand for longer.
And at times Djokovic was only saved by the weather, even though he often seemed to consider it to be his enemy.
Don’t expect Nadal to brush Thiem aside with the same ease as last year. Dominic will have learnt from that experience.
And he is playing the sort of drop shots that dreams are made of.
But this was a gruelling semi-final. Thiem is still young. But how much will he have left in the tank?
First let’s deal with the business end of this topsy-turvy contest.
Djokovic kicked his chair in frustration after squandering the chance to break and go 2-1 ahead in the deciding set.
He hadn’t regained his composure by the time Thiem showed him how it was done to take a 3-1 lead.
In a match full of breaks, we waited to see whether Novak could hit straight back.
He couldn’t, and the situation almost became more grave as he fought off the threat of yet another break.
The rain relieved the pressure for some time. It had served him well in this marathon already.
Was Thiem about to let Djokovic off the hook again? That’s the way it looked when Novak piled on the pressure to break and go 3-4, with the fifth set back on serve.
But three successive unforced errors more than undid Novak’s 30-0 lead in the next game – and worse was to come as he dabbed a forehand into the net.
Incredibly Thiem was serving for the match at 5-3, just after a significant wobble. And in no time at all, strong serving gave him two match points.
But Djokovic stayed cool and kept in the big points until the younger man made crucial mistakes. As Novak broke back, it seemed the match would never end.
As they continued to go toe to toe, Thiem deployed one of his most effective weapons – the drop shot – to help him gain a 6-5 advantage.
Finally he summoned the resolve to end it – and let the women’s final start at long last.
Djokovic had looked sharper out of the blocks on Saturday. No longer was he out of sorts.
This was Novak in hunting mode, looking for a sign of weakness in his prey.
He almost broke back at the first opportunity, but Thiem’s bludgeoning forehands held him off.
Djokovic made no mistake second time around, though. Dominic swept a backhand long at the end of a 24-shot rally and the world number one pounced.
Thiem came back strong in what had suddenly turned into a marvellous match. But Djokovic consolidated for overall parity at 4-4 in the third.
On they went towards the tie-break, each having outdone the other in turn.
But we didn’t get there. Thiem had four separate set points at 6-5. Novak played the game of patience better in the key rally on the first. He served his way out of trouble on the second and third.
But on the fourth occasion, the sheer power of Thiem’s backhand return was decisive. He had taken the third set before the lottery of a shoot-out.
Nadal, practising on another court, must have been grinning as the match went on, points generally only won by super-human efforts.
Undoubtedly Rafa would be fresher for the final. But could he match this level of tennis if his opponent came out with all guns blazing?
Novak broke first in the fourth, Thiem’s shot on the previous point clipping the top of the net with the court gaping. Would he come to regret that?
But Dominic broke back in the same way, the ball looping off the ribbon and over an astonished Novak.
Back came Djokovic to break to love. It was marvellous drama and fast becoming the match of the tournament.
The world’s best player appeared to have the momentum. But incredibly Thiem broke yet again and soon Novak was serving to stay in the match.
When he did so successfully, it was the 25-year-old who cracked and double-faulted to give the favourite a timely break.
More unforced errors helped Djokovic to level the match. We had come full circle.
On the first afternoon of this two-day thriller, it was of course Thiem who had looked the more comfortable of the two players.
To have achieved any level of comfort at all in brutal conditions of swirling sands and gusty wind was quite something.
But Thiem seems to be approaching a new level of maturity. He stayed compact on Friday, his shots flowed off his racquet and brought early rewards.
Djokovic put his towel over his head, and looked as though he didn’t want to be there.
More than that, he told the officials that he didn’t want to be there.
The Serb tried to get play halted due to the wind. And to be fair to Novak, the conditions were close to unplayable.
But it was the same for both players, as it had been for Roger Federer and twelve-time finalist Nadal before them.
Realising that he couldn’t influence the officials, at least for now, Djokovic did finally knuckle down.
And once he brought some clarity and precision to his own mind, his tennis followed suit.
Suddenly it was one set all and we wondered whether Thiem would start to crumble.
Not a bit of it. With a mesmerising drop shot and a fiiercely whipped backhand, the Austrian brought out his repertoire once more.
It was as though he was telling Novak: “I adapted first to these conditions and I will have the last say too.”
But then, with Thiem a break up in the third, the elements finally got the better of the occasion.
Play was suspended for the night.
That decision looked premature when sunshine arrived belatedly and the court became playable for a good hour after the protagonists had left the stage.
But it was too late for a U-turn. Saturday, we now knew, would see the identity of Nadal’s opponent for the final revealed.
And after much scintillating entertainment, that man turned out to be Thiem.
Can he beat Nadal? He will have to be more consistent and serve better than he did against Novak. But he has the game to take the title.
Having said that, after the mentally draining events of Friday and Saturday, it is a big ask for Thiem psychologically.
Rafa starts as favourite. But anything can happen with Thiem on a clay court.