Novak Djokovic’s 26-match Grand Slam winning streak ended in the French Open semifinals because he made some odd strategic choices, because the wild weather bothered him, because the chair umpire got under his skin.
Mostly, though, because Dominic Thiem managed to outperform Djokovic at his own brand of defense-to-offense, speed-and-power baseline game.
Thiem put an end to the No. 1-ranked Djokovic’s bid for a fourth consecutive major championship Saturday with a dramatic 6-2, 3-6, 7-5, 5-7, 7-5 victory in a wind-whipped and rain-interrupted match that spanned more than four hours over two days.
“I don’t want to point out some reasons or find excuses for this loss,” said Djokovic, who had won nine of his past 10 five-setters and was 29-9 overall in such matches. “I mean, he took it, he won it, and well done to him.”
It wasn’t easy. Shouldn’t be against Djokovic, who kept digging holes for himself and climbing out.
Thiem wasted two match points with quick unforced errors when serving for the victory at 5-3 in the fifth, but he made his third chance count, smacking a forehand winner to break Djokovic in the last game.
“An epic match. I mean, so many ups and downs. And rain, going back to the locker, on court again. Somehow I had the feeling that I had the lead in the whole match, and then at the end, it got so tough,” Thiem said. “Both of us, we could win, and I luckily got the better in the end.”
Djokovic was stopped two victories short of collecting his fourth consecutive major championship, a run that began on the grass at Wimbledon last July, then continued on the hard courts of the U.S. Open and Australian Open.
Instead, it is Thiem, an Austrian ranked No. 4, who now gets a chance to win his first Grand Slam trophy on the red clay of Roland Garros.
Thiem will face 11-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal on Sunday in a rematch of last year’s final. Nadal won that one, part of an 8-4 lead for the Spaniard in their head-to-head series.
“All the time, if someone reaches the finals here, it’s against Rafa,” Thiem said with a laugh.
It will be the fourth straight day that Thiem is in action because of postponements, whereas Nadal will be well-rested, having played his quarterfinal Tuesday and his semifinal Friday, when he beat Roger Federer 6-3, 6-4, 6-2. Beating Thiem again would allow Nadal to raise his Grand Slam total to 18 titles, moving him with two of Federer’s record for a man.
In the women’s final, which started 1½ hours late Saturday because it followed Thiem-Djokovic at Court Philippe Chatrier, No. 8 seed Ash Barty of Australia won her first major title by beating unseeded 19-year-old Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic 6-1, 6-3.
On Friday, Thiem had just broken Djokovic to go up a break at 3-1 in the third set when their match was suspended because of a shower. They resumed 18½ hours later, in dry, breezy conditions. The wind that was so fierce Friday — spreading loose, rust-colored clay dust from the court surface all over the place, making for something that seemed like a sandstorm — was much more manageable Saturday. It rippled players’ shirts but did not cause havoc with serve tosses and shots the way it had the evening prior.
“One of the worst conditions I have ever been part of,” Djokovic said about Friday. “That’s all I can tell you.”
Repeatedly, they engaged in long and entertaining points that lasted 10 shots, 20 shots or more. They used anticipation and enviable court coverage to track down each other’s shots. They walloped the ball from all angles.
The very longest of these exchanges tended to go Djokovic’s way: He won 37 of 61 points (61 of nine or more strokes.
For whatever reason, Djokovic often felt compelled to try to shorten points often, hardly his usual strategy. So that led to this key statistic: He won only 35 of 71 points when he went to the net. Thiem, meanwhile, took 18 of 20 on his more judicious forays forward.
Serving at 15-all while down 6-5 in the third set, Djokovic was agitated by a warning from chair umpire Jaume Campistol for letting the serve clock expire. Djokovic wouldn’t let it go, complaining so much he was called for unsportsmanlike conduct.
The lack of focus drifted into his play, too, including a serve-and-volley attempt that handed that set to Thiem.
After forcing a fifth, Djokovic faltered again, getting broken to trail 3-1 when he missed a volley, before Thiem held for 4-1, shortly before rain came.
Djokovic was a point from losing when Thiem served at 5-3, 40-15. Except Thiem couldn’t close. Dumped a backhand into the net. Pushed a backhand wide. Sent a forehand long. Slapped a backhand into the net.
Hard to recover from that sort of collapse.
But Thiem regrouped. It was Djokovic who faltered — and who lost, something he hadn’t done on a Grand Slam stage since the 2018 French Open quarterfinals.
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