ATP Young Gun Dominic Thiem will be facing Novak Djokovic, a member of the legendary Big Four.
Djokovic is no stranger to the semifinals at a Grand Slam, as Friday’s match will be his 29th final four appearance. For the 22-year-old Austrian, this is his first career Grand Slam semifinal showing, making the June 3 match the biggest of his career.
Thiem is undoubtedly feeling some nerves ahead of his third meeting with the world No. 1, but he also has a lot to celebrate regardless of the outcome. After defeating 12th-seeded David Goffin in the semifinals, the Austrian clinched a Top 10 ranking, moving up from No. 15 to No. 7. He’s the youngest player to make the French Open semifinals since Juan Martin Del Potro (miss you, Delpo) in 2009. He’s also won the second most matches (next to Djokovic) in 2016.
The 29-year-old Serbian leads the duo’s head-to-head 2-0, most recently defeating Thiem on hard court in Miami. The 13th-seed has yet to push the French Open finalist to a third set in any of their previous meetings, but I predict that although Djokovic will take the match, Thiem won’t go down in straight sets.
As I discussed in my last article, Thiem seems to have a weakness when it comes to converting break points. When the pair met in Miami, the Austrian squandered a staggering 14 break points. Thiem needs to a do a better job of capitalizing on these opportunities, especially against an extremely solid player like Djokovic who doesn’t give his opponents even an inch in the match.
Thus far at the French Open, Thiem has only defeated one opponent in straight sets. He’s won three matches from one set down. Thiem needs to recognize his tendency to play loosely in the first set and how he is often starting from behind. If the Austrian hopes to push Djokovic, who in comparison has only lost one set all tournament, he needs to get out to an early jump; possibly convert some early break points and take the first set.
The conditions in Paris also give Djokovic an edge. The Serb has played in 12 French Opens and is use to how the rain affects the court speed. While Thiem has played some of his best matches on clay (defeating Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer on the dirt) he lacks the shot variety that Djokovic possesses. The No. 1 seed could exploit Thiem with drop shots, as he did to No. 7 seed Tomas Berdych in his quarterfinal match.
Djokovic has been so extremely dominant over the past five years that his 2016 European clay court swing was actually a tad underwhelming. Yes, he made two finals out of the three Masters 1000 tournaments on clay, but he lost to Andy Murray in Rome, which was almost like seeing a unicorn. Djokovic had never lost to Murray on clay, and the Brit isn’t exactly known for his stunning clay court play either. The Serb also suffered an embarrassing first-round defeat to ATP Young Gun Jiri Vesely in Monte Carlo.
If there’s any time in Djokovic’s seemingly unwavering dominance for Thiem to strike, it’s now. The Serb had considerably his worst European clay court season in the past years, whereas Thiem has beaten two Top 10 players on the red dirt.
Handling the inevitable pressure that comes with playing on one of the biggest stages in the tennis season is Thiem’s No. 1 concern. If he can get past the jitters and nerves of his first Grand Slam semifinal and the fact he’s playing a legendary opponent, he has the weapons and ability to execute a win over the 11-time Grand Slam champion, or at least take a set off of him for the first time.