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By Richard Pagliaro | Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Dominic Thiem

Dominic Thiem aims to make history in Paris and could face 12-time Roland Garros champion Rafael Nadal in a collision of historic quests.

Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve

Sequels seldom match originals, but Dominic Thiem arrives in Paris poised for a spectacular spin-off.

Empowered by winning his maiden major in the first fifth-set tiebreaker in US Open finals history, Thiem takes aim at major history in Paris.

More: Courier Disputes McEnroe On Djokovic Damage

The third-ranked Austrian can make history as the first player to win the US Open and Roland Garros in succession thanks to the reconfigured COVID-19 schedule that saw the French Tennis Federation unilaterally move the clay-court Grand Slam from its standard spring spot to autumn for the first time.

Runner-up to Rafael Nadal in each of the past two Roland Garros finals, Thiem has won 13 of his last 14 major matches and reached the semifinals or better for four straight years in Paris. 

It's a major mark that presents a massive challenge.

The question is: How effectively will Thiem transition from the US Open blue hard court to Roland Garros’ red clay? Should Thiem face Nadal for a third straight year in Paris it would be a collision of historic quests: 19-time major champion Nadal is bidding to match Roger Federer's all-time record by winning his 20th Grand Slam championship.

Unlike Nadal and Rome champion Novak Djokovic, Thiem skipped Rome following his epic five-set win over Alexander Zverev in the US Open final.

Two-time Roland Garros champion Jim Courier rates Thiem as co-second favorite alongside Djokovic behind 12-time Roland Garros champion Nadal. Courier says New York success should empower Thiem with the confidence to make a run at perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime double major in Paris.

In a conference call with the media to promote Tennis Channel’s Roland Garros coverage starting on Sunday, September 27th at 5 a.m. Eastern time, TC analyst Courier told Tennis Now Thiem has the confidence and competitive character to pull off this ultimate hard-clay challenge.

“For Thiem, the double, it's obviously a first and hopefully the only time we're going to have this scenario where the US Open, French Open double, back-to-back,” Courier said. “It will be very challenging just because of the lack of time to change surfaces, to get used to the new landscape. The players have done that from the French Open to Wimbledon historically. You just get used to it.

“This is a little bit of an outlier, but I think everyone seems to be in a reasonable frame of mind to give it a try. Dominic should be confident coming in after the US Open. He had a great performance overall. He didn't necessarily play his best tennis in the final, but played well enough to win. That's all that matters. He played some high level stuff coming into the final.”

The fact Thiem broke through for his first maiden major despite playing jittery and sometime sloppy tennis in New York should help him knowing he can win ugly in Paris. Though obviously beating iconic champions like Nadal or Djokovic in a Roland Garros final is an entirely different experience to facing first-time Grand Slam finalist Zverev, whom Thiem has beaten eight times in 10 meetings, including French Open conquests in 2016 and 2018.

“That should give him a big boost that he was able to manage his way through that really tense final, overcome all the hurdles that he did to lift that trophy,” Courier said. “He's now forever a major champion, which is awesome, exciting.”

Five of Thiem’s last seven titles have come on hard court rather than his beloved clay.

Of course, there’s only one king of clay though Uncle Toni Nadal has tabbed Thiem as the one pro whose style is most reminiscent of Rafa. You can understand Uncle Toni’s reasoning.

Both Nadal and Thiem are physical beasts capable of battering opponents’ legs and breaking their spirit. Both men create confounding topspin from sweeping swings and invest complete commitment to even point. Both can dictate play with fierce forehands and they are two of the best in the world hitting offensive shots from defensive positions—a key quality on the sizeable salmon-colored Court Philippe Chatrier.

“He's a player that I like him a lot, the way that he work, the way that he plays, and the way that he tries his best always,” Nadal said of Thiem. “I think we like each other in terms of character. I like his attitude. Probably he likes mine, too. We have things that we can compare each other in some way…

“He has a lot of power, so he's able to produce these amazing shots from a very difficult position.”

Staying power could prove pivotal to Thiem in Paris.

The 27-year-old Thiem joined legendary Hall of Famer Pancho Gonzales, who fought back from a two-set deficit to defeat top-seeded Ted Schroeder 16-18, 2-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4,win the 1949 U.S. National Championships, as just the second man in the 140-year US Open history to rally from two sets down and take the title. Thiem collected a champion's check of $3 million and respect for transforming a high-strung start into a triumphant finish.

The third-ranked Thiem has gone the five-set distance with Djokovic twice in the past year failing to close a two-sets-to-one lead before bowing in five sets in the Australian Open final in February after edging the Serbian 7-5 in the fifth-set in the 2019 Roland Garros semifinals.

Despite the quick turn around time Thiem faces in transitioning to the terre battue, bookmakers list the US Open champion as joint second-favorite alongside Djokovic, to win Roland Garros.

Oddschecker reports Thiem’s odds of winning the French Open have come down to +300, putting him equal with Djokovic.

The duo are second-favorites behind Nadal, given odds of +100—suggesting he has a 50 percent chance of winning his record-extending 13th Roland Garros crown before a match has even been played.

Thiem knows he can beat Nadal amid intense Grand Slam pressure because he did it at the Australian Open unleashing audacious shotmaking winning three tiebreakers in a four-set conquest of the 19-time Grand Slam champion.

Risk is required to stop Nadal though Thiem understands the risk inherent in red-lining against the champion on red clay.

"I think that I have very powerful ground strokes, and I can even hurt him with them," Thiem said. "But the key is to play really fast and powerful. But on the same time, not make too many mistakes.

"I did it sometimes against him, but it's a risky game style also, because it can happen that I make too many mistakes and then it looks black."


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