“Champions adjust” is a daily philosophy Billie Jean King swears by.
On Saturday, Dominic Thiem stated his latest case to become the next player to join the major champion's club. In the process, the fourth seed ended world No. 1 Novak Djokovic’s quest to hold all four Grand Slam trophies at once—for the second time—by winning their French Open semifinal, 6-2, 3-6, 7-5, 5-7, 7-5, in a match that spanned two days, featured three rain delays and presented complex playing conditions. Thiem will square off against 11-time champion and a well-rested Rafael Nadal on Sunday in a replay of the 2018 French Open final.
"It was my first five-setter in Roland Garros. It was an epic match. So many ups and downs and rain, going back to the locker, on court again," said Thiem. "Somehow I had the feeling that I had the lead in the whole match and then at the end it got so tough. Both of us could win. I luckily got better in the end."
Thiem is bidding to become the first ATP player since Nadal, in 2005, to capture his maiden major at Roland Garros. He defeated the Spaniard en route to winning the Barcelona title this year, improving to 4-8 overall in their head-to-head series. Nadal has only lost twice at Roland Garros, to Robin Soderling and Djokovic. A win over Nadal would enable Thiem join 1995 French Open winner Thomas Muster as the second Austrian to lift a major singles trophy. Nadal won their latest major meeting at the 2018 US Open, prevailing in a final-set tiebreaker to win a high-quality quarterfinal contest.
Djokovic had won his previous 10 major semifinals, dating back to the 2014 US Open. The 2016 Roland Garros champion saw his 26-match unbeaten run in Grand Slam play ended, one of three streaks Djokovic owns amongst the Top 6 in Grand Slam history.
"Congratulations to him. He's playing great tennis," Djokovic said of Thiem. "He showed why he's one of the best players in the world, and I wish him best for the final."
Coming into Friday’s start of this semifinal, Thiem had showed signs of strengthening in Paris. After requiring four sets in his first three encounters, he comprehensively dismissed Gael Monfils and Karen Khachanov to reach the final four. Meanwhle, Djokovic was dominant in not dropping a set en route to the semis. He was careful with his decisions to come forward, winning 49 of 64 points at net across his five matches. That selectiveness was flipped on its head against Thiem, a decision Djokovic will likely look back on when evaluating his defeat.
Brutal wind with gusts reaching 40 M.P.H. created a second obstacle for the player to conquer throughout Friday. Thiem was calm and relaxed, striking the ball well, while the world No. 1 struggled to handle the cards dealt.
"One of the worst conditions I have ever been part of," said Djokovic. "That's all I can tell you."
A rain shower sent the players off court with Thiem serving at 2-3, 30-0 in the second set, giving each player a substantial opportunity to consult their coaches. When they returned, Djokovic’s mood shifted and his point construction, net approach decisions and composure appeared back on target.
Thiem stepped up his power meter, pushing Djokovic back to get the first break of the third set. Rain arrived again and this time, Friday’s play was suspended for good. When the two resumed Saturday, gusts were still present, about 10 M.P.H. lighter, but both came out slugging with more force. Though Thiem lost his break advantage and struggled to find the sweet spot on his racquet at times, he stayed aggressive and focused.
In an 11-minute game, Djokovic retreated to serve and volleying and coming in on anything mid court. Whether that was incited by a time violation he received earlier in the game remains to be seen, but Thiem nailed a backhand return on his fourth set point to punish the Serbian’s recurrent charging tactic.
Though Djokovic lost an early break lead in the fourth set, he stayed with Thiem to reach 5-5. A tight Thiem double fault handed the Serb the break, and he confidently closed to force a winner-take-all set.
At 1-1, Thiem cut a poor backhand drop shot, but was bailed out when Djokovic’s forehand reply sailed well long. This resulted in another plot twist: Thiem recovered to hold, and Djokovic followed by hitting four unforced errors, culminating with a netted backhand volley to drop serve.
Another turn soon followed with Djokovic serving at 1-4, 30-40. Pellets of rain returned for one last barrage. Djokovic kept his poise to avoid going down a double break, before play was halted for the third time. Once resuming, the sun was shining and Djokovic stopped mid point to contest Thiem’s shot was long. The chair umpire didn’t agree. Unhappy yet still focused, Djokovic staved off a second break point to begin mounting a comeback he'd often displayed before.
Thiem failed to convert two match points when serving at 5-3, not trusting his ability to hit through the court by misguiding two backhand slices. Djokovic’s net approaches were more effective as the set went on, and he suddenly found himself on even footing at 5-5. To his credit, Thiem commanded his next service game to hold for the first time since the delay.
"The key point was this service game at 5-All when I had the wind against me, and I played a really good game. Then my mind was up again," Thiem reflected.
On his fourth match point, the 25-year-old clinched his third win over a world No. 1, and second versus Djokovic at the French Open, in four hours and 13 minutes with a resounding forehand winner. Djokovic's finished the encounter with a 35 for 71 success rate at the net.