Dominic Thiem's defense—and a slow backhand—led to a fast win v. Cilic

Dominic Thiem's defense—and a slow backhand—led to a fast win v. Cilic

If the US Open champion was a question mark before his first-round match, his performance in it was an exclamation point.

“I love it when it’s not too fast,” Dominic Thiem said of the cold and heavy conditions at Roland Garros after his 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 win over Marin Cilic on Monday.

Should Thiem’s words, coupled with his impressively routine win over a former Grand Slam champion, be considered a warning shot to the rest of the field?

To me, the Austrian was the crucial question mark coming into this year’s French Open men’s draw. After surviving the psychodrama of the US Open final, and winning his first major title after nearly a decade of trying, would he be in any kind of shape, mentally and physically, to do it over again in Paris two weeks later? The key, Thiem said today, was “to get the match tension again.”

“I mean, I was on fire in New York for two weeks, and then for one week at home where I tried to relax but not lose all the tension,” Thiem said of his emotional balancing act. “Because obviously I want to do well here in Paris.”

For Thiem, not losing the “tension” meant not losing the momentum and the mindset that he would need to be ready for another two-week Grand Slam campaign. Judging from his opener, he succeeded. The world No. 3 showed up in all-business black, and only got better with each set.

The better known of Thiem's one-handed backhands. (Getty Images)

Over the years, and especially during the US Open, Thiem has been mocked for his court position. Taking a cue from Rafael Nadal, he sets up to return serve as far behind the baseline as he can, to the point where the camera can have difficulty keeping him in the picture. After he hits his return, Thiem does take a couple of quick steps forward, but in general he’s content to launch his topspin missiles from well back in the court.

Some fans object to this style of play because it’s not aggressive, and not exciting. Others think Thiem is missing opportunities to use his lethal ground strokes to pummel his opponents’ second serves. And it’s true, Thiem has lost matches because he has ceded too much ground.

But anyone who plays tennis knows that it can be disorienting to look across the net as you set up to serve and see your opponent against the back fence. The chances of hitting an ace are now slim to none, and free points on your serve will be few and far between. That means all of the server’s calculations must change: How hard should you hit the serve, and where should you put it? These are questions no one wants to have to ask right before they serve.

The obvious answer is to slice the ball wide, but on clay, Thiem is a master at sliding into the corner to return virtually any ball—and Court Philippe Chatrier, where he played today, gives him ample room to roam. The other obvious answer for his opponents is to serve and volley, but few players do that naturally these days, and if you try it against Thiem, you’re probably going to have to dig out a low volley.

Along with his dipping topspin forehand, Thiem has also mastered a slow backhand chip that crawls over the net and forces the other guy to take the ball off his shoe tops. Time and again on Monday, Cilic gained the advantage in a point, only to be frustrated by a dying, perfectly placed Thiem backhand pass.

“It helps against guys like Marin,” Thiem said of the slow conditions, “because it’s a little bit easier to return many balls in the court and run down most every ball.”

Thiem's other one-hander is a slow slice chip that's become very effective. (Getty Images)

Cilic controlled the rallies in the early going, as Thiem eased his way into the match. But the Croat grew frustrated as he tried to figure out a way through, or around, Thiem’s defenses. The big ground strokes that usually win him points kept coming back, and the spin and trajectory of Thiem’s passes made life difficult at the net, too.

By the third set, Thiem was confident enough to take a step forward and rifle a few balls past Cilic. But it wasn’t necessary. Thiem hit just 17 winners, compared to 24 for Cilic, but he won 93 points to Cilic’s 73.

“I know how to play in those kind of conditions obviously because in Austria, we have many days like that,” Thiem said of the cold weather that has enveloped Paris. “I was very happy with the way I played from the beginning to the end basically.”

Thiem continues to maintain that Nadal is the “huge favorite” for the title. That position helps Thiem take some of the pressure off himself, but it’s also one that no one is likely to argue with—Rafa is still the king of clay. But if Thiem was a question mark before his first-round match, his performance in it was an exclamation point.