2017 French Open QF Preview: Novak Djokovic vs Dominic Thiem

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Two enter, only one shall leave – as Novak Djokovic squares off agains Dominic Thiem for a spot in the 2017 French Open semifinals. Djokovic crushed Thiem at this stage last year in Paris and he has won 11 of the 12 career sets they have played against each other. Djokovic is 5-0 versus the Austrian.

(2) Novak Djokovic vs (6) Dominic Thiem

One round after going the distance in a surprise match against Diego Schwartzman, Novak Djokovic made more economical use of his time with a straight sets win in the 4th round over Albert Ramos-Vinolas. Djokovic did not make life easy early though as he fell behind a break, before breaking back against Ramos-Vinolas to force a tiebreak in the opening set. Djokovic would steady himself to take the tiebreak 7-5 and then finish off the Spaniard in straight sets 7-6 (5), 6-1, 6-3. The Serb still tallied too many unforced errors with 30 for the match to go with 34 winners. He was broken three times on eight chances, while taking an efficient seven breaks off Ramos-Vinolas on ten chances. Djokovic said he obviously was able to relax and play more freely after the lengthy 75 minute opening set. He’ll need to short up on these slow starts though that have plagued him the last two rounds.

Thiem had no such issues as he walloped Horacio Zeballos 6-1, 6-3, 61. After being broken early in the opening set, Thiem would not let Zeballos see another break chance. For the match, Thiem saved two of three break chances, all coming in the lone game where he was broken in set one. Otherwise, it was all Thiem all the time. He won 92 perent of the points off his first serve. The Austrian broke Zeballos seven times on 12 chances. Thiem also tallied 24 winners to go along with 17 unforced errors. It was his fourth match at the tournament with all ending in straight sets. His first serve has been an extraordinary weapon this week, winning over 87 percent of the points in three of those four matches with an 83 percent win rate as his lowest mark.

All Mental or Set to be Monumental?

By now, there surely must be something of a mental block for Thiem when he sees Djokovic’s name down as his opponent. The only set he has taken in their five career meetings came at the 2016 ATP World Tour Finals. It took him a 12-10 tiebreak result to get that one set and then Djokovic crushed him 6-0, 6-2 the next two sets. Their last meeting was devastating with Djokovic beating Thiem 6-1, 6-0 at the Rome Masters this Spring. Thiem won just 13 of 36 points on serve. Last year’s semifinal at Roland Garros was similarly lopsided with Djokovic cruising 6-1, 6-1, 6-4. Thiem won 42 of 83 serve points that day. Overall, Djokovic has broken the Austrian 16 times in their careers.

I think you can make an excuse for the Rome meeting and last year at Roland Garros as to the lopsided results. In Rome, Thiem had just beaten Rafael Nadal after losing to him three straight weeks. It was a taxing match emotionally and physically that probably left him ripe for the picking against anyone and it was Djokovic who took advantage. Admittedly, Djokovic also played a hell of a match. Last year at the French Open, Thiem had broken through the glass ceiling to make his first Slam semifinal and then was rudely welcomed to his first Slam semi with a resounding defeat. Whether young players will admit it or not, their first time with a chance to get to a Slam final is nervy. I think those nerves showed greatly and again, Djokovic took advantage.

Thiem certainly won’t excuse his poor play in Rome or last year in Paris, but this is about as good a set-up as he could have hoped for heading into another showdown with Djokovic. He hasn’t been extended into a long match and Djokovic has still looked vulnerable. Does any of that matter though with how well the Serb has handled him in the past?

Tactically Speaking: Serving

You really have to start with Thiem’s serve in this match-up. It’s been broken over and over by Djokovic with Thiem rarely able to find the level on his first serve that he’s shown against others this week. Thiem hasn’t won more than 74 percent on his first serve in any match versus the Serb and 67 percent at last year’s Tour Finals was his highest win rate since their first two meetings. If he can get in the mid 70s, you’d think he would be right in the match, but the fact is that he needs to be better than that to win. He needs either an elite serving day or something far worse than normal from Djokovic. The latter likely the more reasonable thing to ask for in this match-up.

The first serve is a massive hit or miss for Thiem. When you look up an down his wins and losses, he’s nearly unbeatable when he’s stroking his first serve and winning a high percentage of the points. When it’s down near 70 percent or lower, the Austrian is very beatable. It’s a stat worth monitoring in this quarterfinal clash. Djokovic will certainly be confident that his return will again trouble Thiem. Djokovic has crafted 65 break opportunities already through four rounds. He’s rarely been unable to get into his opponent’s serve and when he’s dropped his own serve, he’s flashed that trademark break-back ability that has made him so dangerous.

I don’t really know if there is anything Thiem can change with his serve that can make a huge difference against DJokovic. I think it’s about execution. He should be confident with how he has been serving, but he’s got to keep that mindset heading into this match. If Thiem thinks any of the past and how Djokovic handled him on serve, it’s going to drop his level.

The Ground War

This will be another baseliner’s delight. Outside of the Schwartzman match, Djokovic has been dictating the battles in most instances with superior shot depth and placement. It’s much the same as what he did to Thiem in Rome. So what can Thiem do to change things up this time around? I think he’s got to be willing to take the ball earlier and be willing to be brave by taking chances. If he engages in too many of the 20+ shot rallies, it’s going to where on him physically and mentally, if he’s not winning points. Much like a baseball player against a great pitcher, sometimes you have to throw patience out the window and just swing for the first good pitch that you see. For Thiem, he should take chances to put away points earlier rather than trying to stay in those lengthy rallies and hope to get himself into better position. That won’t happen enough.

As for Djokovic, you know what he wants to do. He wants to push Thiem back on the court with superior depth to his shots to keep him off-balance. His backhand has been the weaker shot of late, when he’s lacked consistency. That should be the side that Thiem can look to attack. One thing I think the entire world could do without from Djokovic are the multiple drop shots he has attempted to very poor results. It almost seems to be a panic move on the Serb’s part and has been a sign that he’s not solving the match just yet. Thiem does have really good speed though, so if Djokovic continues to try those shots – don’t be surprised if Thiem is there to do some damage.

The Pig’s Bottom Line

For me, Thiem has to do something different tactically. The results don’t lie that what he has doen in the past has not worked enough against Djokovic. I think if he’s aggressive and can paint some lines, he’s got a chance. Djokovic has been pushed by players with less weaponry than Thiem, so you can’t go into this one thinking that the 6th seed is without a chance. The key for Thiem is to start fast and put some doubt into Djokovic’s mind, much like Schwartzman did. Djokovic is a great front-runner and with his history against Thiem, a slow start from the 6th seed would be disastrous.

I do think Thiem has been playing excellent tennis for most of the season on clay and that can’t be discounted here. I do expect him to come out fired up to show that fatigue was to blame for his Rome performance against Djokovic. Still, Djokovic has been finding more ways to get things done this tournament that are reminiscent of the Djokovic that dominated tennis at this time last year. Expect some good competition finally between these two, but I think the Serb sitll has his number at the end of the day.

Prediction: Djokovic wins in four sets

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