For a while there, it looked as if Novak Djokovic would cruise to a fifth straight appearance in the final of a Grand Slam tournament. Prior to his Round-of-Four meeting with World Number Four Dominic Thiem, he carried an air of invincibility at Roland Garros; he made short work of his previous opponents, barreling through five straight-sets victories without surrendering more than three games in each set. And it wasn’t simply because he had momentum; in eight previous matches against the only player standing between him and a date with defending champion Rafael Nadal, he had emerged triumphant six times.
Unfortunately, fate conspired against Djokovic’s bid for the Coupe des Mousquetaires and, by extension, a second career Nole Slam. First, his playing style — predicated on precise point construction — clashed with the elements; swirling winds wreaked havoc on his swings, and to the point where he lobbied for a suspension of the contest until conditions improved. Second, and more importantly, he faced an extremely sharp Thiem, whose focus was such that no hurdle on or off the court — not the press conference snafu involving Serena Williams and not the swirling currents that toyed with bounces and sent particles of red clay airborne — could make hazy.
When the rains came, Djokovic would eventually get the postponement he asked for, and the more benign setting seemed to help his cause. He leveled the contest at two sets apiece, and, when Thiem threatened to pull away in the final set, got yet another reprieve from more precipitation. He rallied from a 1-4 deficit and appeared ready for a protracted fight. In truth, he wasn’t; his serve — and, to be sure, strategy — failed him anew in the last game, and he wound up bowing 5-7 to crash out of the French Open.
In the presser that followed, Djokovic was alternately wistful, defiant, and, yes, accepting. “When you’re playing in hurricane-kind conditions, it’s hard to perform your best,” he said. No doubt, he was likewise put off by his contentious back and forth with chair umpire Jaume Campistol for a shot-clock warning in the third set. And in “these kinds of matches, one or two points decide a winner,” he noted. Nonetheless, he acknowledged Thiem’s superiority. “I mean, he took it, he won it, and well done to him … This match was always going to be tough because Dominic is a fantastic player on clay — and in general, but especially on clay.”
Under the circumstances, Djokovic can’t be too downcast with the result. Despite an up-and-down run-up to Roland Garros, he could well have reached the final had he not run into a determined Thiem. And, as he preps for Wimbledon early next month, he can take solace in the fact that he’s already in far better position than he was this time last year. Certainly, there are worse ways to begin his campaign to retain the title in the sport’s premier event than at the top of rankings.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994.