What we learned: Thiem's crazy trial

Thiem had to tame bewildering shots - and underarm serves - of Bublik to advance.

Dominic Thiem - Roland-Garros 2019 - 2e tour©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT
 - Ian Chadband

Dominic Thiem was able to breathe a big sigh of relief after coming through a considerable test against the erratic, occasionally brilliant and always entertaining Kazakh, Alexander Bublik, on Court Philippe-Chatrier on Thursday.

The Austrian No.4 seed looked to be heading into a fifth set against the world No.91 when Bublik held two set points at 5-2 to level the match, but his magic finally deserted him and Thiem ran out a 6-3, 6-7(6), 6-3, 7-5 winner to book his third-round place.

Here are the takeaways from their fascinating and enjoyable two-and-a-half hour encounter.

Dominator needs to dominate again

It might seem a little harsh on last year’s finalist who was given the task of taming the crazy, all-or-nothing game of the Russian-born Kazakh Bublik but, for the second match running, Thiem did seem to make heavy weather of subduing an opponent.

In the first round, he admitted to feeling ‘tight’ before he gradually slogged his way past Tommy Paul in four sets but Bublik, offering everything from underarm serves, to sneak attacks on Thiem’s second serves, to booming down 210km/h second serves of his own, provided a very different culture shock here.

"There were almost no rallies. He almost served only first serves and underarm serves. He gave me no rhythm at all. He did it very good, actually," Thiem said of Bublik, who finished with 16 aces.

"Probably, for spectators, nice to watch because he played so different, but for me it was very tough. Generally, it was a strange match, I think. Somehow the fire never got there."

Perhaps "The Dominator" needs to start living up more to his nickname again.

Underarm serve still divides opinion

The “oohs” and “aahs” started when Bublik chucked in a cheeky underarm serve when 4-1 up in the second set and quite wrong-footed Thiem, who could only shovel the ball back and allow the Kazakh a nice, easy pass.

Suitably encouraged by this, Bublik tried it soon afterwards and again won the point, leading to what seemed a fairly unanimous chorus of disapproval from the Philippe-Chatrier crowd who evidently felt this just wasn’t the done thing. Neither had German player Rudolf Molleker, Bublik’s first round victim, been too impressed when the Kazakh had tried it on him.

It was third-time unlucky when Bublik tried it once more in the third set and Thiem, by now cottoning on to the ploy, responded with a winning drop shot response of his own. The crowd cheered with delight that Bublik had been seemingly hoisted by his own petard. 

"I expected it," said Thiem, of his triple test. "To be honest, it's a good choice against players like us who are that far behind the baseline. There is nothing bad about it. I was prepared for that, so that was no problem."  

Thiem pleased with patience

While Thiem never seemed quite in control of this match against an erratic runaway opponent, he could at least be satisfied with producing a much less error-ridden performance than against Paul, this time producing only 16 unforced errors compared to the 28 he gifted to the American.

Patience had to be at the heart of the Austrian’s approach against such a wildly-fluctuating opponent and, ultimately, his more solid, conservative approach paid dividends as Bublik’s pyrotechnics eventually burned themselves out.

Thiem could learn from Bublik’s invention

“He was better on the drop shots and lobs than me,” Thiem conceded with admirable candour as he pondered how the Kazakh had outplayed him in the creative department.

Of course, the Austrian has not become one of the best three clay-courters in the world without being a superb shotmaker but a little more finesse and invention to go with the power would also no go amiss.

On the occasions he did go for his drop shots, perhaps encouraged by Bublik’s own liberal use of the tactic, Thiem was more often than not rewarded.

Tennis needs more mavericks like Bublik

In the end, Bublik, who allied some wonderful silky touches to remarkable power hitting, demonstrated why, for all his talent, he remains for the moment at No.91 in the world.

At 5-2 up in the fourth set and poised to make Thiem’s life very uncomfortable as he held two points to take the match the full distance, his game inexplicably imploded as if the excitement of the moment had quite fazed him.

Alexander Bublik© Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

After then surrendering his delivery with some wild volleying, he went back to his seat and spent the entire changeover flipping his water bottle over and over, trying to make it land upright. In the very next game he was broken to love; he seemed to have run out of steam.

Still, though, the crowd sent him off Chatrier with a well-deserved standing ovation because the game needs more mercurial, attacking musketeers like him. 

At 21, there remains plenty of time for him to blossom into a top performer as well as rare entertainer.