Majorly unlucky: US Open champion Thiem gets brutal Roland Garros draw

Majorly unlucky: US Open champion Thiem gets brutal Roland Garros draw

A potential shot at Nadal in the semifinals could require the Austrian to beat Cilic, Opelka, Ruud, Wawrinka and Schwartzman.

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Will Rafael Nadal equal Roger Federer’s men's record of 20 major titles by lifting a 13th Coupe des Mousquetaires? Will Novak Djokovic close his own gap in his chase towards history by triumphing in Paris for a second time?

As the tennis world descends on Roland Garros, it’s only natural to focus on a potential Djokovic-Nadal final given their storied rivalry and what’s on the line. But what about Dominic Thiem, the two-time reigning finalist and the first ATP player to join the major winner’s club in six years?

Less than two weeks ago, Thiem became the first player in the Open Era to win the US Open final from two sets down when he toppled his good buddy Alexander Zverev in a decisive tiebreaker. It was a fitting step for Thiem to take, having lost his 2018 major-final debut in three sets, his second French Open final in four sets last year, and a demanding five-setter to Djokovic at this year’s Australian Open.

Thiem understandably pulled out of Rome, flying home to recover and share his well-deserved victory with family. During his final virtual press conference in New York, Thiem was confident he would be prepared for the transition to clay, but offered up his own million-dollar question many will be look to be answered in Paris.

“How I'm going to do it with the emotions mentally? Obviously, I've never been in this situation,” he said.

Julien Crosnier / FFT

There are few players on tour Thiem can relate to. Since the emergence of the Big 3, just four other men—Juan Martin del Potro, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic—have tasted victory on a Grand Slam stage. Murray and Wawrinka initially triumphed at majors well-suited to their styles, yet weren’t necessarily the venues predicted for their breakthrough moments. The same now holds true for Thiem, who by turning his fantasy into reality, now anticipates he’ll be able to play more on his terms when the stakes are the highest.

“I expect that it's going to be easier for me now in the biggest tournaments because, of course, I had it in the back of my head that I had a great career so far, way better career than I could ever dreamt of,” Thiem said. “But until today there was still a big part, a big goal missing. With this goal achieved, I think, and I hope that I'm going to be a little bit more relaxed and play a little bit more freely at the biggest events.”

Playing freely will be paramount to Thiem’s bid to achieve a unique US Open-Roland Garros double, as there is nothing relaxing about his path to the title. On Thursday, the 27-year-old landed in Nadal’s half of the draw, but his route to a potential fourth consecutive Paris meeting with the King of Clay could present plenty of emotional tests for Thiem to confront.

He opens with Cilic, who he’s 3-0 against. The Croatian, a two-time French Open quarterfinalist, will be hungry after falling to the world No. 3 in the third round of the US Open. A matchup with 6’ 11’ Reilly Opelka stands as a possible second-rounder. The two split sets on clay in Madrid last year, before Opelka retired a game into their decider. Opelka has just two wins at the tour-level on red dirt, though one came against Pablo Carreno Busta ahead of their Madrid meeting.

From there, Thiem's passage heats up. Two players in the age group behind Thiem could battle it out for the right to face the No. 3 seed: American Tommy Paul and No. 28 seed Casper Ruud. Paul faced Thiem in the first round here last year, bowing out in four competitive sets, but he has climbed more than 70 spots in the rankings since that meeting. He is yet to win a match since the tour reopened, however.

Julien Crosnier / FFT

Clay is by far Ruud’s preferred battle ground—he's 12-3 in 2020 with a maiden ATP title in Buenos Aires—and is coming off his first ATP Masters 1000 semifinal showing in Rome. A trainee at Rafa Nadal’s academy in Mallorca, Ruud told the ATP website last year he felt there was an opening within his generation to own the surface.

He explained, “none of the new ones, except Thiem, who is a little older than us, has done unbelievably good on clay yet. I like to go around and play heavy on the forehand, which obviously bites more on clay. It’s harder to receive a heavy ball on clay than on hard court.”

Thiem’s weight of shot is a spectacle all its own, and a clash with Ruud would certainly force each player to be prepared for a grinding struggle on the baseline. Expenditure is especially worth noting here, because the round of 16 could serve up the slugfest of the tournament: a showdown with Wawrinka.

The two first met at 2014 Madrid, where Thiem was overwhelmed by Wawrinka’s power in the opening set. He would make impressive adjustments to defeat the Swiss for his first Top 10 win, but hasn’t beaten him since in three clashes, although they haven’t faced off since Wawrinka underwent a pair of left knee surgeries in late 2017.

A year ago in Paris, the 2015 champion more than confirmed his body could still hold up at a Slam when he outclassed Cristian Garin, Grigor Dimitrov and Stefanos Tsitsipas in succession to reach the quarterfinals. Wawrinka, seeded No. 16 this time, will have his own challenges to navigate: a rematch of his 2017 semifinal with Andy Murray, a possible second round matchup with the in-form Dominik Koepfer and No. 19 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime.

Prospective quarterfinal opponents, No. 8 seed Gael Monfils, No. 9 seed Diego Schwartzman and No. 24 seed Borna Coric will all be in the mix. Out of the group, it’s one of Thiem’s tour besties, Schwartzman, who brings the most to the table coming in. The Argentine knocked off Nadal for the first time in 10 meetings in a performance he called “my best win” en route to contesting his biggest final at the Italian Open. Thiem is 6-2 in their series, and 3-1 on clay, with three coming during South American’s Golden Swing.

Julien Crosnier / FFT

On his past four trips to Roland Garros, Thiem has been a factor in the money rounds. His father Wolfgang expressed to us earlier this year that while his son was never one to take a big step, he always “went up.” Thiem’s progression in the French capital is a perfect illustration of just that: in 2016 his semifinal debut ended with a clinical defeat to eventual champ Djokovic; in 2017 he beat a second-ranked Djokovic to defend his points; in 2018 as the semifinal favorite, he beat Marco Cecchinato before getting blitzed by Nadal; and in 2019, he won a marathon five-setter over Djokovic and took his first Paris set off Nadal.

There is one notable change on the court this year. Roland Garros ended its long-term arrangement with Babolat, resulting in its competition ball shifting to Wilson. Having the opportunity to test them in practice, Thiem believes the switch will impact the way points play out, and how he feels it could impact rallies.

“The new balls will be slower, more open. That will certainly change the results a bit,” Thiem, who like Nadal plays with a Babolat frame, said in an interview with Sky Sports Austria. “The Babolat were actually my favorite balls, they were nice and fast, perfect for my game, perfect for Nadal's game too.”

That aside, all competitors are facing a wide set of new circumstances, and for Nadal, he won’t have his usual luxury of match fitness to rely on. Ahead of his 12 title runs at the Paris major, Rafa averaged 17.75 matches on European clay, and was battle-tested with 4.75 of those coming against Top 10-opposition. The Spaniard, who opted out of the US Open, comes to the French capital with three matches under his belt. Nadal has hoisted the trophy in each of the last three visits and is still the top favorite: at 93-2, how can he not be? His draw is encouraging, with Zverev and Fabio Fognini the biggest threats on paper, and the lefty is 24-0 once reaching the final four.

Thiem has often described Nadal turning Court Philippe-Chatrier into his living room. If Thiem can find a way to make his opponents lose belief in that same way during his first week as a major champion, it just might be a warning sign he won't crash on the couch if he and Nadal are in the same room again. If those two do end up facing off, Djokovic can only hope they go to war—as he is the probable final hurdle to clear for a flawless fortnight finish.