Thiem's titanic task against Djokovic

 - Kate Battersby

The Austrian must halt Djokovic's march towards history if he is to reach a second successive RG final.

Dominic Thiem Novak Djokovic Roland Garros 2017©Philippe Montigny / FFT

If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. For Dominic Thiem at Roland-Garros 2019, there is no other option.

The four remaining berths in the draw are occupied by himself and three of the greatest players of all time. For now, the Austrian needs to focus on just one – his semi-final opponent, Novak Djokovic.

Their roads to the semi-final

Djokovic, the No.1 seed, has roared through the draw without losing a set. Alexander Zverev came nearest, pushing him to 7-5 in the first set of their quarter-final before his challenge crumbled.

Thiem kicked off with three consecutive four-setters, in every case surrendering the second set. But he snapped that habit in the fourth round against Gael Monfils with a clear improvement which he carried through his quarter-final against Karen Khachanov.

Their respective goals

To win the title, of course.

But at 32, Djokovic is gunning to become the first man in the Open Era to hold all four Grand Slams at the same time, twice. He achieved it in 2015-16, sealing the quartet here, and is aiming for an exact repeat here. If he lifts the Coupe des Mousquetaires on Sunday, it will be his 16th Grand Slam title in all.

By contrast, 25-year-old Thiem’s biggest achievement on the Grand Slam stage was here 12 months ago, as runner-up to 11-time champion Rafael Nadal. He is the only active men’s player under 28 to have reached a Grand Slam final, and this will be his fourth consecutive year in the semis here.

The state of play

Going into this semi-final, Djokovic leads their career meetings 6-2, including 3-2 on outdoor clay. But among the latter encounters was their 2017 quarter-final here, where Thiem trounced his opponent in straight sets. Their only meeting so far this year was in the Madrid semis, where Djokovic edged through in two tiebreaks.

The telling statistics

Zverev was able to mount a first-set challenge in the quarter-final because Djokovic’s first serve was off, and he was winning only 63% of points on it. In the second and third sets, it was back in the 80s.

But something is going to have to give, because Thiem’s serve this fortnight has been very nearly as productive, gleaning 80% of points on his first serve. Thiem has lost his serve eight times to Djokovic’s three.

Moreover, the Serbian’s return of serve has been effective, winning 37% of receiving points on his opponent’s first serve, and 60% on the second; with Thiem’s figures at 32% and 54%.

Thiem has been on court for far longer – 11 hours 12 minuts to Djokovic’s eight hours 55 minutes. Yet despite played 18 sets so far to Djokovic’s 15, he has made fewer unforced errors – just 94 to the Serbian’s 100.

What they said

Djokovic: “Dominic is deservedly where he is, one of the top four guys, especially on clay. That's where he's playing his best tennis. He's got that tremendous power in his game, especially with forehand and serve. I think backhand also has improved a lot in the last couple of years. Seems like his relationship with Nicolas Massu [Thiem’s coach since February] has helped him a lot, also mentally, I think, in big matches. If he continues playing this way, not just on clay but in general, I think we will probably be seeing him more often on different surfaces in the final stages of the tournament.”

Thiem: “Every match I’m getting better and better. I’m very happy with the way I’m playing. It's incredibly difficult to win a Grand Slam, especially for us players who don't have one yet – if everything goes quite normal, we have to beat two players with 15 or more Grand Slams. But I will step on the court against Novak and try everything, of course, give everything. I hope it's going to be positive in the end, but the challenge is huge. Novak is in very good shape again, probably playing his best tennis of his life.”