Rafa's four to fear?
Dominic Thiem raced into the semi-finals as Alexander Zverev was hit, sadly, by a hamstring injury.
Dominic Thiem knew it was cruel on one one of his great friends, who was hobbling and thinking of pulling out of the biggest match of his career, but he also recognised he could not afford to show one shred of sympathy to a wounded Alexander Zverev on Court Philippe-Chatrier on Tuesday.
For this was his moment - and Austria’s coming man, a cruelly rampant 6-4 6-2 6-1 winner in 10 minutes shy of two hours, looks and sounds increasingly confident that Roland-Garros 2018 really may belong to him.
“It wasn’t difficult to stay focused. I mean, we were playing a quarter-final of a Grand Slam, so the only thing I wanted to do was to win,” reckoned Thiem. “It doesn't matter how your opponent feels or who is standing there. I just wanted to finish the match in a positive way.”
He did just that. Ruthlessly. A couple of years ago, these young central European buddies had played across the road at Suzanne-Lenglen, both dressed in that year’s must-have fashion item and hugging each other at the net like a couple of affectionate zebras. Thiem won that one too, but he didn’t look anything like the lion he is now.
“I'm a better player in general now, for sure,” he said, as he contemplated the prospect of finally getting past the semi-final here at the third attempt. “I think this year I'm physically and mentally fresher than I have been the last two years. I know how to handle a Grand Slam now, how to get that deep in such a tournament, and I think everything gets better with experience.”
Naturally, it was desperately disappointing that this clash between the two young guns best equipped to end Rafael Nadal’s reign here should unfold in such an anti-climactic way once it became evident at the start of the second set that Zverev’s injured left hamstring was troubling him so acutely.
According to the German, the problem had actually begun in the fourth game of the first set after a series of punishing rallies. “I slid one time, and then I felt, like, a muscle pull. I thought, well, okay, I played a lot (three consecutive five-setters in the previous three rounds). I thought maybe it's just, like, soreness or something that would just go away.”
It didn’t. “I thought about pulling out. I definitely thought about it, but I didn't want to pull out for the first time of my career in a Grand Slam quarter-final,” said Zverev, whose muscle was strapped by a trainer at 4-1 down in the second set and who, one game later, stood forlornly at the end of Chatrier looking as if he could not go on.
“I knew then I'm not going to win the match. There was no way for me. I mean, I could barely move. I couldn't serve. I couldn't really do anything. But I still wanted to finish the match and kind of give the credit to Dominic. He deserves to be in the semi-finals (and for the game) to end on a loss and not on a retirement.”
Yet while the No.2 seed did continue gamely after a second treatment from the trainer, demonstrating a steel that said much about his character, there was something equally striking about Thiem’s deadly focus in blitzing to a semi-final date with either Novak Djokovic or Marco Cecchinato.
For never mind the final two sets when he was bullying a man who was simply not moving or hitting with the conviction of someone who truly believes, it was that authoritative, attacking opening set when Thiem was constantly putting Zverev on the back foot with his all-court speed and the depth and power of his groundstrokes that showed why he ought to be the man to rattle Rafa here.
Zverev, who will have an MRI scan to determine the severity of the injury, certainly thinks his pal can go the whole way. “I think he can definitely go to the final. It's going to be between Rafa and him. I think he's playing very heavy, not missing much. I think he's improved his serve a lot so he's definitely playing great tennis,” said the German.
And as he battled his way through a hopeless cause in the third set, even winning a lone game to a huge ovation and occasionally coming up trumps with the odd startling shot when he had nothing to lose, Zverev reckoned he had learned a lot from his best-ever Grand Slam showing.
“This is a very positive week for me. My first quarter. I lost to a great player. I was hurt a little bit. So who knows? Who knows what could have happened?” he said.
And he’d even made a new friend, who informed him that some of his tennis had been like poetry in motion. “I think you're the only person who will actually make me smile right now,” Sascha told his now-famous Yorkshire interrogator-cum-cheerleader.