Has a marathon runner ever gone 26.2 miles, approached the finish line, and then just...stopped?
That’s what Dominic Thiem appeared to do while serving at 5-3, 40-15 in the fifth set—double match point—against Novak Djokovic on Saturday at Roland Garros. Thiem had survived two days and 24 hours of topsy-turvy tennis, hurricane-like winds, multiple rain delays and scheduling controversies, and a feverishly rejuvenated Djokovic at the start of the fifth set.
Yet after making his way through all of that, when he reached the precipice of the biggest win of his career, Thiem could barely swing his racquet. Given a chance to rip his favorite shot, a topspin backhand, on each of his first two match points, he sliced the ball meekly instead, once into the net and once wide. Two more wild errors later, he was broken. A few minutes after that, the score was 5-5, and the world No. 1 looked as if he was about to do what world No. 1s do: Snatch a victory from the deep inside the jaws of defeat.
“Two match points where I was too passive,” Thiem admitted. “Didn’t hit the ball because the wind was pretty strong in this game.”
“Somehow I had the feeling that I had the lead in the whole match, and then at the end it got so tough.”
At 5-5, with Thiem serving into the wind, everything looked set up for another Djokovic back-from-match-point miracle—like the ones he had pulled off against Roger Federer at the US Open in 2010 and 2011, and against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Roland Garros in 2012. The 25-year-old Thiem had come a long way over the last two seasons, but as he said before this match, he was going up against three of the best players in tennis history—Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer—in these semifinals.
This time history took a different turn. Rather than ruthlessly seizing his opportunity, Djokovic also faltered at the finish line; rather than folding in the face of a 15-time Slam champion, Thiem gathered himself.
“Then the big, key point was this service game at 5-all, when I had the wind against me, and I played a really good game, and then my mind was up again,” Thiem said.
When the two players switched sides at 6-5, Thiem had the lead and the wind at his back. Djokovic continued to miss, and Thiem was presented with a third match point. When the ball came to his backhand, he went with the slice again, but this time it worked. His shot floated crosscourt, pulled Djokovic into the alley, and left the rest of the court open for his forehand. He didn’t miss.
“It was my first five-setter in Roland Garros,” said Thiem, who hit 52 winners and was 18 of 20 at the net over the course of four hours and 13 minutes. “It was an epic match. I mean so many ups and downs and rain, going back to the locker [room], on court again...At the end, both of us could win, and I luckily got the better in the end.”
For Djokovic, the loss snapped his 26-match Grand Slam win streak, and left him two wins short of a second Djoker Slam. Afterward, he echoed Thiem’s thoughts, but from the other side of the (narrow) winner-loser divide.
“This match was always going to be tough, because Dominic is a fantastic player on clay—in general, but especially on clay,” Djokovic said.
“Yeah, it’s unfortunate, you know, these kind of matches, one or two points decide a winner.”
When Djokovic played Thiem in Madrid last month, he approached the match with a determination to stay calm and not beat himself, and he edged Thiem in two tiebreakers. At the time, I thought Djokovic was getting himself into the mindset that he would need to win his second French Open. In Paris, he maintained that mindset through his first five matches, all of which he won in straight sets. In the quarterfinals, as soon as Alexander Zverev broke him in the first set, Djokovic locked in and cruised the rest of the way—he grew calmer under duress.
But that’s not how it went for him in the semifinals. Whether it was the conditions, or the opponent, or the pressure of the approaching title match, Djokovic didn’t stay calm. On Friday, he asked the referee to stop play because of the wind. On Saturday, he complained to the chair umpire about starting the shot clock too quickly. He rushed the net with uncharacteristic abandon. He slammed a ball against a wall, and another into the court. He kicked the clay and screamed at himself. And just when he seemed ready to roar past Thiem in the fifth set, he didn’t.
“Obviously, when you’re playing in hurricane conditions, it’s hard to perform your best,” said Djokovic, who committed 53 unforced errors against 39 winners, and was just 35 of 71 at net. “It’s really just kind of surviving in these kind of conditions and trying to hold your serve and play one ball more than your opponent in the court.
“It is what it is. I played great tennis, I think, throughout most of the clay-court season. And here I didn’t drop a set until semis.”
Still, Djokovic credited Thiem—“he took it, he won it, and well done to him.” And if it had been a lesser opponent on the other side of the net, Djokovic might not have been so edgy.
Thiem can celebrate a signature victory, and another step forward. But since this is still the era of the Big 3, he won’t have long to bask in the glow. In less than 24 hours, he’ll be back on court, trying for an even bigger win, against a well-rested 11-time champ, Nadal. For now, Thiem should be happy that he finished one marathon. He can try to cross the next finish line when he gets to it.