Order of Play: Tuesday June 5
We preview quarter-final day at Roland-Garros, headlined by the popcorn battle between Zverev and Thiem.
Big because ...
Leaders of the generational peloton in pursuit of the ‘Big Four’, these two have yet to impact that domination at Slams. The German is at last into his maiden Slam quarter-final, and while three grinding five-setters here have not announced authority, they certainly bear testament to his stamina. Thiem has required four sets in his last three matches; but against Kei Nishikori in the last 16, the quality of his opening two sets was blissful.
With all six meetings coming in the last two years, Thiem leads 4-2. They’re 1-1 on clay, and the Austrian won their only match here in 2016 – but Zverev was 19 and ranked outside the top 50. “We played five times when he was top 10 and I was in the developing stage,” observes Zverev, “so obviously he’s leading the head-to-head.” But in last month’s Madrid final, Zverev dominated in straight sets.
Form coming in
Thiem’s highlight was dismissing Rafael Nadal in Madrid, although he won in Lyon after an early defeat in Rome. Zverev loss to Nadal in the Rome final snapped a 13-match clay-court winning streak, which took in titles in Munich and Madrid. Both have looked strong on red clay this spring.
At age 24 this is Thiem’s fifth Roland-Garros. He has made the semi-finals in each of the last two years, losing in both cases to the eventual champion in straight sets (Nadal last year, Novak Djokovic in 2016). This is just Zverev’s third main-draw appearance, with his best that third-round defeat to Thiem two years ago. Last year he slumped to first round defeat by Fernando Verdasco.
Zverev must rouse himself from the passivity characterising his three five-setters here. In Madrid he unleashed the full artillery to overcome Thiem, and a repeat can break his opponent’s dogged defence. But the Austrian will be happy to prolong the points, to capitalise on any cumulative tiredness in Zverev. Thiem’s kick serve will also come in handy, so long as the ball does not drift into the German’s strike zone.
The 12-time Grand Slam winner versus the world No.72, who is the lowest-ranked quarter-finalist here in a decade… it sounds like a done deal. But the Italian did not arrive in the last eight by accident, despatching the No.10 and No.8 seeds, Pablo Carreno Busta and David Goffin, in the last two rounds. Moreover, for all Djokovic’s run of solid form to the semi-finals in Rome and his ninth successive quarter-final here, it is only six weeks since the world No.140 Martin Klizan dismissed him in Barcelona. “I have practised with Marco many times so I know his game,” says Djokovic of this first meeting. “He’s playing the tennis of his life and deserves respect. I’ll approach it very seriously.”
Had the seedings panned out, this one would have seen last year’s champion Jelena Ostapenko take on Rome winner Elina Svitolina; but neither so much as made it into the second week. Putintseva can draw on lessons learned from her 2016 defeat at this stage, where she unburdened Serena Williams of a set. For this baseliner clay is her favourite surface, which is more than can be said of Keys. Nonetheless, the US Open runner-up has reached her debut quarter-final without losing a set, and is even developing some affection for the red dirt. “I’m figuring it out a little bit more every time,” smiles Keys. “It’s growing on me.”
This quarter-final offers genuine intrigue. Russia’s No.14 seed Kasatkina would not allow Wozniacki to regroup overnight for their fourth-round encounter, snapping out three straight games to dismiss the Australian Open champion for the best win of her career. Into new Grand Slam territory here, she faces a tough opponent in the US Open champion Stephens, who is increasingly seen as having the game for clay. Twice back from match point down in the third round to Camila Giorgi, she describes her arrival in the quarters here as “super cool… isn’t it exciting?”