That was the warning we read in a thousand tweets on Friday, after Nadal announced that he was withdrawing from the French Open with a wrist injury and joining his old rival, Federer, on the sidelines. With that, the Golden Era’s sun seemed to sink a little lower in the sky.

But when it rose again on Saturday morning, the sport’s future looked a little brighter. That’s because two players who will likely figure prominently in it, 22-year-old Dominic Thiem of Austria and 19-year-old Alexander Zverev of Germany, began the proceedings on Court Suzanne-Lenglen by playing one of the crispest, most professional, most entertaining sets we’ve seen all tournament, which Zverev won 7-5 in a tiebreaker. Unfortunately, all anyone could talk about was the fact that, in their matching black-and-yellow-striped shirts by Adidas, they looked like a pair of forehand-bashing zebras.

No, these two young men aren’t going to make anyone forget about Roger and Rafa any time soon, but Thiem and Zverev did put on a display of state-of-the-art tennis. Despite their outfits, there was also enough contrast in their styles and games to keep them from looking like twins, or producing a cookie-cutter slugfest.


The 6’6” Zverev is the bomb thrower. He hits bigger and flatter on his serve, forehand and two-handed backhand. Thiem, meanwhile, is a precocious master of spin. His flexibility and leaping athleticism result in one of the game’s best and most surprising kick serves, one of its heaviest topspin forehands and a single-handed backhand that he can slice or come over with equal facility. Between them, these two guys have the modern-day tennis arsenal covered.

But while their third-rounder was a show-court showcase for each of them, this match was, at a more immediate level, a test of where Thiem stands right now. He’s three years older than Zverev, and that more much experienced. He’s ranked 15th to Zverev’s 41st. He has won six titles, five of them on clay, to Zverev’s none. He was 2-0 against the German coming into this match. And at the start of the year, Thiem had been tapped by at least one of his fellow players as a future French Open champion. Now, with Nadal’s withdrawal, he had a path to the semifinals. How would he react? Would Thiem, pun intended, show his stripes?

In the end, Thiem passed this test with flying colors, and that’s not just because he won, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-3, 6-3. It’s the way Thiem won that was such a promising sign for his future.

First, Thiem looked completely unbothered by the fact that he lost a tight first-set tiebreaker. Typically, that’s something that can linger, and make a nervous player believe that it isn’t his day. Knowing how to negotiate and pace yourself through a five-setter is one of the things that separates the best players from the rest.

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Over the years, Novak Djokovic has gotten off to his share of sluggish starts, but he knows that dropping a set isn’t the end of the world, or the end of the match. Thiem has only been playing three-out-of-five-set tennis since 2014, but he already grasps that these are marathons, not sprints. He opened the second set with a brilliantly controlled backhand drop shot that led to a break of serve, and brought his opponent's momentum to a screeching halt.

“It was not a big drama to lose that first set,” Thiem said.

From then on, Thiem was in control. This year, I’ve mostly watched him in matches where he’s facing one of the Big Four. He beat Nadal in Buenos Aires before losing to him in Monte Carlo; he beat Federer in Rome; and he lost a tough two-setter to Djokovic in Miami. In those matches, Thiem often played bigger than was necessary. He went out of his way to run around his forehand and try to hit winners from impossible angles. It was as if he felt he needed to play better than he’s ever played before to win. Against Djokovic, Thiem was the more spectacular shotmaker, and the one who wowed the Miami crowd; but it was the steadier Djokovic who was ahead the whole time.

Against Zverev, Thiem didn’t try to play better than his best. He moved the big German around without going for anything low-percentage. Rather than challenge Zverev’s first serve with his return, he took a step back and put more balls in. Thiem, controlling the middle of the court, hit 44 winners against 33 errors, and made a safe and sturdy 78 percent of his first serves. Essentially, he did what Djokovic did to him: beat a younger, rawer opponent by playing with the controlled, confident, risk-averse aggression of a player favored to win.

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“The little difference [in the match] was probably the three years age [difference],” Thiem said afterward.

Is this Thiem’s time? He plays unseeded Marcel Granollers next; Thiem is 3-0 in their head to head. But he could face David Goffin in the quarters; the Belgian leads their head to head 5-2. A trip to the semifinals would have to count as a success at this stage of Thiem’s career; anything less might be a disappointment.

A tennis world worried about the future should welcome a deep Thiem run here. He has the crowd-pleasing game, but he wraps it in a down-to-earth, trouble-free package; as far as young guns go, he’s the anti-Kyrgios.

But that doesn’t mean Thiem doesn’t have a sense of humor. His only regret about this win over Zverev?

“I’m sad that there’s one less zebra standing.”