Novak Djokovic is officially in crisis mode
PARIS – Start by giving Dominic Thiem his due. The Austrian won the biggest match of his ascending career with a 7-6(5), 6-3, 6-0 quarterfinal takedown of Novak Djokovic. Serving well, moving with grace and zinging his extravagant backhand with conviction, Thiem pulled out a first-set tiebreak and then—a real mark of top player—played front-runner, dropping just three of the next 15 games to close it out in three sets and two hours and 15 minutes.
He now faces Rafael Nadal, whom he beat on the clay of Rome less than a month ago. There are obvious differences between a Grand Slam semifinal and a match in Rome. There are obvious differences best-of-three and best-of-five sets. But if beating the defending champion was not enough, it must imbue Thiem with confidence knowing that he beat Nadal in their last encounter.
Without undermining Thiem: Novak Djokovic is officially in crisis mode. We’ve seen players fail to defend their titles; but it’s hard to recall a player going out 6-3, 6-0 in the final two sets with tennis so mentally vacant, fans whistling in derision.
"The win here last year has brought a lot of different emotions," Djokovic said after the match. "Obviously it was a thrill and complete fulfillment. I have lived on that wave of excitement, I guess, till U.S. Open or so. And at the U.S. Open, I just was emotionally very flat and found myself in a situation that I hadn't faced before in the professional tennis career.
"It's obviously tough to get out of it and figure out the way how to move ahead. At least I'm trying. I'm trying to get better, trying to be on a high level again. I know that I have achieved the biggest heights in this sport, and that memory and that experience gives me enough reason to believe that I can do it again, although I'm aware that I'm not the only one....The world is not spinning only around me. I'm grateful for the attention, but, you know, there are many other players that deserve that, as well. As I said, the next chapter for me. So now I'm just figuring it all out, and obviously there are things to think about and to work on, and we'll see where it takes me."
A year ago, Djokovic went to Wimbledon holding all four major titles. This year, he'll head to Wimbledon holding zero major titles. The obligatory reminder that careers are not linear, that comebacks are almost de rigueur for top players. But say this: coach Agassi, you got your work cut out for you…..
More thoughts on a packed day of quarterfinals matches at the French Open on Wednesday:
Rafael Nadal looks better than ever heading into French Open semifinal vs. Dominic Thiem
Rafael Nadal has been at his Nadal-est this event. This has been 10 days of immaculate tennis, custom-made for clay courts. Nadal may consider himself an "old" 31-year-old. But it’s as though he decided to start the year by changing into the costume of a younger player. He required only 10 games on Wednesday, advancing when his countryman opponent, Pablo Carreno Busta, retired with an abdominal injury at 6-2, 2-0.
Nadal has not only done everything right so far. Nadal has not only won a higher percentage of second serve points than first serve points. He is also expending very little precious energy. After Wednesday’s shortened shift, his five matches here averaged less than 90 minutes. His 10th title is no forgone conclusion. In the semifinals, he will play No. 6-seed Thiem, the last man to beat him (and the last man to beat him on clay). Regardless of those stats, Nadal could scarcely be better positioned.
Simona Halep's incredible comeback sets up French Open semifinal vs. Karolina Pliskova
On Sunday, we knew that we would have a first-time major winner on the women’s side. Implicit in that: the results would be dictated as much by handling the occasion as they would placing tennis balls in boxes. With sizable opportunities come sizable rations of pressure.
Rifling her forehand and declining to miss first serves, Elina Svitolina led Simona Halep 5-0 in the opening set on Wednesday. She lost the next three games but took the set 6-3. Svitolina led the second set 5-1, a few points from an easy, under-an-hour win. But she blinked and her opponent’s eyes widened. Halep gained confidence and composure with each game and leveled the set 6-6. In the tiebreaker, Svitolina held a match point. Halep saved it and ran out the tiebreaker 8-6. By then, Svitolina’s psyche had been julienned. No. 3-seed Halep closed out the match in the third set with a 6-0 scoreline.
Halep—whose coach, Darren Cahill, ironically left her because of her defeatist attitude; he came back several weeks later—gave a primer on the virtues of keeping calm. And she is in the semifinals, where she will face No. 2-seed Karolina Pliskova, who beat Caroline Garcia 7-6(3), 6-4.
Stan Wawrinka quietly advances to French Open semifinals without dropping a set
Tennis players don’t make physical contact until they shake hands after the final point. But that doesn’t they can't inflict pain on the opponent.
Stan Wawrinka again brought his brutal, physical tennis to bear on Wednesday. Running his man from one corner to the other, pinning him deep behind the baseline, Wawrinka punished Marin Cilic, who is likely sitting dazedly in an ice bath as you read this. We’ve been talking for the last ten days about Rafael Nadal’s dizzyingly high level of play here. But Wawrinka isn’t far behind. He has yet to drop a set and he’s won 17 of his last 18 matches at Roland Garros. And you get the feeling he still has some more body blows to unload.