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After two-set lead, Dominic Thiem has no answers for Andujar. Now, more questions surface
What's going on with the two-time Roland Garros runner-up, and current US Open champion?
Published May 30, 2021
HIGHLIGHTS: Pablo Andujar shocks Dominic Thiem in the first round of the French Open.
Sometimes the first jarring upset at a major, like a big hit at a football game, doesn’t happen for a while. But at this year’s edition of Roland Garros, it took place less than seven hours after the tournament started.
Just before 6:00 p.m. Paris time, 68th-ranked Pablo Andujar laced a facile inside-out forehand into the open court to finish off his upset of fourth-seeded Dominic Thiem, 4-6, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.
“The game was just not there today,” said the two-time Roland Garros runner-up and current US Open champion. “Like all the shots are missing power. They are not accurate enough. I'm moving not well enough, so everything in my game there are some percents missing, you know?”
Losing after being two sets to zero up, it's very strange to me, and, I mean, I have to analyze it and think about it what's wrong at the moment.
Initially, all seemed on course for Thiem, particularly given that he was 47-1 in majors after winning the first two sets. But as the match wore on, Andujar proved both increasingly difficult to shake off, and more frequently in control of the court positioning. This win was a tribute, as we have seen so often, to the relentless grit that is seemingly baked into the games of so many Spanish tennis players of the last 25 years.
Movement, persistence, consistency, sustained depth—and the occasional drop shot, sprinkled in for added torture—are the cornerstones of this country’s tremendous success. Over the course of four hours and 28 minutes, Andujar was exemplary, authoring an emphatic follow-up to the three-set win he earned last week over Roger Federer in Geneva.
“I try to play point by point, and to try to focus in every point, and it's not something that I think,” Andujar said. “Because sometimes thinking, ‘Today is the day I will beat Dominic,’ is something that puts a little bit of pressure on you…I try not to do it.”
But while Andujar’s resilience is visible and refreshing—elbow surgeries and time off the tour saw his ranking plummet to No. 1,821 in early 2018—Thiem’s struggles remain a mystery. A finalist at this event in 2018 and 2019, the 27-year-old Austrian appears to be grappling with the implications and pressures that accompany at last having won a major.
“It's amazing to reach such a big goal,” said said of his breakthrough, “but at the same time, something is different after.”
Long having earned a spot as a clay-court maestro and top challenger to Rafael Nadal on the terre battue, Thiem has floundered on the dirt this year, winning only four of seven matches on the surface prior to Roland Garros. It wasn’t surprising to see such a walkabout happen to someone as unfocused as Marat Safin. But Thiem? He of the supreme work ethic?
Even Thiem is uncertain about what’s going on.
“Actually, I don't really know why, because since I stepped back on court it's already two months, and I was really practicing well, super intense,” said Thiem. “Shots were there in practice and it got also better in Madrid and Rome.
“But Lyon and here, I mean, the shots and all how I moved and everything was just not the real me, I would say, or my version who is able to play for big titles. It's just not good enough at the moment. And, yeah, it's very tough situation.”
Despite his own woes and Andujar’s excellence, Thiem had his chances. Gaining momentum one toothpick at a time, Andujar served at 1-0, 40-15 in the fifth. Thiem broke back, held his serve and soon earned a break point, Andujar serving at 1-2, 30-40. But Thiem was unable to get a second-serve return in play. That chance squandered, Thiem lost the game.
Serving at 2-all, a clearly discouraged Thiem went down love-40 and was soon broken. Asked Thiem, “If you have a breakpoint in the fifth set and you miss a second-serve return, it’s a disaster, no?”
For the second straight year, Thiem exits Paris after losing a five-setter. But his 2020 defeat came much later in the tournament, a quarterfinal epic versus Diego Schwartzman. And that it happened less than a month after Thiem’s emotional New York campaign made it understandable.
But this loss—Thiem’s first-ever in the first round of Roland Garros—represents a much deeper source of concern.
“It's kind of the first situation like that, what I'm facing, because basically all my career, all the last five, six, seven years was a way up all the time,” he said. “I mean, of course I was sometimes dropping from 5 to 8 in the ranking or whatever, but never had losses like that, especially here in Roland Garros.
“Losing after being two sets to zero up, it's very strange to me, and, I mean, I have to analyze it and think about it what's wrong at the moment. And then of course try to hit back as soon as possible.”
Let’s hope so. Tennis sizzles that much more when Thiem is in full flight. For now, though, he’s encountering his own form of turbulence.