Thiem reached his first Grand Slam final the way a great player should

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In his third consecutive French Open semifinal, Dominic Thiem beat Marco Cecchinato in three sets to reach his first Grand Slam final. (Photos by Anita Aguilar)

PARIS—Dominic Thiem was living on the edge. The back edge of the service line, to be exact.

On Friday, in his semifinal against Marco Cecchinato at Roland Garros, Thiem trailed 8-9 in the second-set tiebreaker as he prepared to serve. Losing this point would be a devastating blow. Thiem had won the first set, led 6-3 in the second-set tiebreaker and, at 6-4, plunked the easiest of backhand volleys into the net to give Cecchinato new life. What had looked like a romp for the Austrian was now on the verge of turning into a war.

The crowd in Court Philippe Chatrier, and especially Cecchinato’s highly vocal rooting section, were ready to erupt. They were ready to try to will the world No. 72—the ultimate Grand Slam Cinderella—to another miracle upset.

“The second set tiebreak was the big key to the match,” Thiem said later, “100 percent because obviously he [would feel] all the matches from these two weeks after that. And if he would have won the tiebreak, he would be full power, for sure, in the third set.”

Thiem missed his first serve. Most other players would have sent their second ball safely into the middle of the box. But Thiem is not like most other players. There are no conservative options or safety switches in his game; his philosophy seems to be that you might as well swing for the fences if you’re going to bother swinging at all.

He hit his second serve hard, with a lot of kick, and put it on the outside edge of the service line. Surprised by the pace, Cecchinato framed his return and gave the ball mark a long look. Another centimeter and the set would have been his.

Was there ever a doubt about how Thiem would play this semifinal? While he was the heavy favorite against Cecchinato, he was never going to sit back and hope that the Italian melted under the unfamiliar heat of the Grand Slam spotlight. From the start, Thiem punctuated every swing with a rough grunt, and took a full cut at every ground stroke. Standing far behind the baseline to receive serve, he used every inch of Chatrier’s rectangular sea of red clay to launch his topspin missiles. Occasionally, he used a little too much of it: scrambling to return a Cecchinato overhead, Thiem barely avoided a full-speed collision with a ball boy.

WATCH—Thiem beats Cecchinato, 7-5, 7-6 (10), 6-1 to reach the French Open final:

But nothing slowed Thiem down or tempted him to move up in the court. In the second-set tiebreaker, Cecchinato took advantage of Thiem’s deep positioning to win four points with drop shots. Thiem stayed the course, kept firing full blast and answered with five forehand winners in the breaker alone. Thiem felt confident rallying with Cecchinato because the Italian uses a single-handed backhand—the Austrian knows first-hand what the shot’s vulnerabilities are.

“I like to play against guys with a one-handed backhand maybe some things are a little bit easier against them,” he said. “Maybe you can build a point a little bit easier against them if you play some high balls on the backhand. Everybody with a single-handed backhand has some problems there.”

One thing Thiem also knows is that his own, heavily spun one-handed backhand is better than most of his opponents’. He hit nine winners from that side in this match; Cecchinato hit none.

Yet when Thiem was faced with another set point, at 9-10 in the tiebreaker, he did something different with his backhand. After rallying for a few shots, Thiem drifted back and suddenly knifed under a backhand and landed it short, for a drop-shot winner of his own. Thiem is not, after all, a one-dimensional topspin machine.

“If I won the second set,” Cecchinato said, “I think it’s totally different the third set. But after the loss I go a little bit down with mental.”

In his third try, Thiem has advanced to the French Open final; at age 24, it feels right on time for a player many have seen as a potential successor to Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros. He did it the only way a great player can do it: his own way, swinging for the fences, aiming close to the lines, living on the (back) edge.

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