Is Dominic Thiem The Most Interesting Man at Roland Garros?

This image is a derivative of Dominic Thiem (3) by JC (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Rafael Nadal is the favourite to win the men’s singles championship at Roland Garros this June. Novak Djokovic is clearly the man with the best shot at taking him down.

Lots of people think Stefanos Tsitsipas can make some noise at this tournament, especially if he gets the right draw. Andrey Rublev elevated his clay-court profile by making the Monte Carlo final before Tsitsipas stopped him. 

In some very obvious ways, this is the first Roland Garros tournament since 2016 in which Dominic Thiem isn’t centrally on the radar going into a Parisian fortnight.

In 2016, Thiem did reach the semi-finals, but remember this: He was the #13 seed. He was in Rafael Nadal’s section of the draw with Nadal likely to meet Thiem before the quarterfinals, yet the brilliant Spaniard had to withdraw with an injured wrist. Thiem took advantage of that plot twist and fought his way to the semis. 

In the next four French Opens – 2017 through 2020 – Thiem has been seeded in the top-seven. He has been seeded in the top-four the last two years, and he will be seeded in the top four this year as well.

Yet, this French Open feels a lot like 2016. Thiem is playing terribly – he got demolished by Cam Norrie in Lyon, a 250-point tournament Thiem entered solely for the purpose of getting match play. By losing to Norrie, Thiem didn’t get nearly as much match play as he needed.

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People have told me on Twitter that Thiem hasn’t done well in Monte Carlo or Rome in previous years but has still done well at the French. That point is meant to convey the idea that Thiem can simply flip the switch and turn on the jets in Paris when it really counts.

It’s a fair point, but we need to realise how different this year is for Thiem compared to previous years in which he made the Roland Garros semifinals or final. 

In previous years, Thiem had endured the full grind of the tour. Even if he didn’t succeed at various tour stops, he was fully invested in tennis and the pursuit of excellence. That matters. 

This year, Thiem was injured in Australia. His feet were not 100-percent healthy. He was seen requesting new shoes midway through his loss to Grigor Dimitrov, which is not the reaction of an athlete who is physically comfortable and pain-free. Yet, physical pain seems to have mattered less than the mental challenge of remaining an elite force in tennis. Thiem has very directly said that he is trying to reshape his life and his larger thought process:

“I’ve been chasing that great goal for 15 years without looking to the left or to the
right,” Thiem said about finally winning his first major title at the 2020 U.S. Open last September.
“Like I said, I made it. Under strange circumstances, but it’s not that important to
me. In some ways, some things have been left out of the way. Private life, dealing
with other things, broadening the horizon. You have to do something for the head, for the brain. It was just tennis. I want to change that a little bit,”

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Thiem isn’t simply entering Roland Garros in 2021 after a few ho-hum tournaments, as he has done in the past. This is different. This is a year in which Thiem took multiple months off while the rest of the tour continued play. Thiem won the U.S. Open after several months off, but instructively, the rest of the tour had several months off as well. Thiem was not unique in his lack of match play preceding the U.S. Open. The pandemic levelled the playing field.

Here in 2021, Thiem has been uniquely quiet (along with Roger Federer) heading into Paris. Nadal played a full clay season, as did Tsitsipas. Djokovic didn’t play Madrid but quickly and convincingly announced his preparedness by reaching the Rome final and beating Tsitsipas in a compelling three-set showdown. 

Thiem was the biggest non-Djokovic threat to Nadal in Paris in 2018 and 2019. Sure enough, he made the final in those two years. 

In 2019, he beat Djokovic in five sets to make the final. Thiem has steadily improved at Roland Garros. We can throw 2020 into the garbage bin because Thiem was just a few weeks removed from his U.S. Open title. He was completely exhausted, which showed in his quarterfinal loss to Diego Schwartzman. No one at the time should have assigned any negative meaning to his quarterfinal loss… and no one should do the same thing today.

What matters today, though, is that Thiem is not the same player he was last year, when he reached the Australian Open final before capturing his U.S. Open title.

He hasn’t invested in the grind. He took a few months off. He is consciously aware of the tunnel-vision focus and effort he has given to the sport of tennis for a long time. Some athletes can be self-conscious like that and not suffer in terms of performance… but that’s a rare gift, not a common reality. This is a markedly new context for Thiem as he prepares for Roland Garros.

This is what makes the tournament so interesting for him… and for every tennis fan and analyst.

Obviously, Thiem would get a real boost if he is drawn into Daniil Medvedev’s half of the draw, and Nadal and Djokovic have to play each other in the semifinals. 

Thiem could get a half of the draw with Medvedev and Roger Federer. If he hits the jackpot like that, he could make the final once again… but unless that dream scenario unfolds, he’s in real trouble this June in Paris. 

For the sake of clarity, “in real trouble” refers to Thiem’s ability to make the semifinals, which has been a relatively consistent result for him over the past five years at the French Open. This is the only major tournament where Thiem reached the semifinals or better until the 2020 Australian Open in Melbourne. Therefore, a semifinal result should be Thiem’s minimum expectation, not his maximum hope.

Yet, it seems unlikely that Thiem will even make the semifinals this year in Paris.

Is that the whole story, though? No. There’s one more thing to say about 'The Most Interesting Man In France' for the next few weeks.

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Having outlined precisely why Thiem is flying below the radar, and is unlikely to succeed, and is in a different – and newly difficult – place as he heads to Paris, we have to ask: What if he does extremely well?

More precisely, what if Thiem beats Nadal or Djokovic? What if he at least beats Tsitsipas, Rublev or Alexander Zverev en route to a semifinal, final, or title? It wouldn’t be as shocking as Phil Mickelson winning the PGA Championship at age 50, but it would be extremely impressive. 

Thiem is struggling to figure out the challenge of how to re-light the flame after it has briefly but genuinely died. Finding an instant reset button – and coming from a comparatively obscure position to deliver a strong major tournament result – would elicit a strong comparison to Stan Wawrinka, a guy who could be completely out of sorts for several months, but can then flip the switch for two weeks at a major.

Dominic Thiem is not likely to threaten the big boys this year at the French Open, even though – paradoxically – he became one of the big boys in tennis last year by winning a major championship.

Yet, while Thiem’s current outlook is grim, that very reality means if he can turn everything around 180 degrees in Paris, the City of Light could give birth to an even more luminous legend for this high climber from the alps of Austria. 

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Matt Zemek

Matt has written professionally about US College Football since 2000, and has blogged about professional Tennis since 2014. He wants the Australian Open to play Thursday night Women's Semi-Finals, and Friday evening Men's Semi-Finals. Contribute to his Patreon for exclusive content here.

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