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Thiem to face Nadal in French Open final after ousting Djokovic in two-day semifinal

Hannah Wilks in ATP Tour 8 Jun 2019
  • Dominic Thiem to face Rafael Nadal in the final of the 2019 French Open
  • Thiem defeated Novak Djokovic in five-set semifinal over two days at Roland Garros
  • Windy conditions and rain were among the challenges faced by the players in what Thiem described as an 'epic' match
Dominic Thiem celebrates victory over Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the 2019 French Open (PA Sports)

Dominic Thiem to face Rafael Nadal in the final of the 2019 French Open after ousting Novak Djokovic in five-day semifinal.

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The men's final at the 2019 French Open will be an exact re-match of last year's final with 'Prince of Clay' Dominic Thiem once more attempting to challenge the acknowledged king, 11-time champion Rafael Nadal.

Thiem defeated world no. 1 Novak Djokovic in five sets in a semifinal that began on Friday, was rained off and suspended in controversial circumstances, and resumed on Saturday.

The two men had to deal with another rain-delay on Saturday before Thiem succeeded in wrapping up the 6-2, 3-6, 7-5, 5-7, 7-5 victory.

Thiem in action (PA Sports)
Nadal had completed his semifinal, a straight-sets victory over Roger Federer, on Friday afternoon, giving him a big physical advantage coming into Sunday's final.

Thiem and Djokovic had split sets on Friday, with Thiem breaking to take a 3-1 lead when rain set in. Play was abruptly cancelled for the day, a decision that left many bewildered when the weather quickly cleared, leaving plenty of time for the match to have been completed on Friday evening.

When play resumed on Saturday, in conditions that were not quite as windy as Friday's but still very difficult with swirling gusts around Court Philippe-Chatrier, Thiem promptly went down 0-30 and had to save break point before holding for 4-1, but Djokovic won three games in a row to level for 4-4.

It set the tone for what would be a scrappy match, with both players spasmodically producing some great tennis but also plenty of unforced errors and tactical adjustments required by the wind. Thiem had to save two break points before leading 5-4, but had the opportunity to go on the attack with Djokovic serving at 5-6 and took it. Djokovic, annoyed by a time violation, saved three set points, but a backhand winner down the line from Thiem set up a fourth, and and the Austrian converted with the same shot, returning a scorching backhand down the line to force the volley error from Djokovic as he attempted to serve and volley.

Djokovic scolded the umpire almost without pause during the sit-down after Thiem took the third set, with highlights of his lengthy rant including demanding to know if the umpire had ever played tennis (umpire: 'Yes') and announcing, 'You've made yourself recognizable. You've made yourself a name. You're going to get all the credit.' The Serb broke early in the fourth to lead 2-1, but was immediately broken back after Thiem landed a gorgeous drop shot - a shot he played frequently throughout the match, for the winner or to draw Djokovic forwards, a tactic which was partly responsible for Djokovc's poor success rate at the net.

Djokovic hangs his head (PA Sports)
'It was not really the game plan what I had, but it's so tough to volley or to play well at the net with all that wind,' Thiem said. 

'If you put a good spin on it, it's so tough to volley this one. And especially on the one side where we played against the wind, I was trying to hit that short, flat slice, because the ball didn't get up again. So I think that was a pretty good tactic.'

Four straight breaks left the score level at 4-4 in the fourth set before Thiem broke the run of breaks by holding for 5-4, putting himself one game away from the win. But it was Djokovic who took the lead, breaking Thiem at 5-5 when the Austrian made a pair of forehand errors and double-faulted, before serving out the set to level at two sets all.

Both men had to save break points in the early part of the fifth set as the game continued to be scrappy, and as dark clouds gathered over Court Philippe-Chatrier, they seemed to be gathering over Djokovic too as he went down 0-40 in a rash of errors, broken to 15 when his drop shot hit the net cord and bounced back. Thiem consolidated to 4-1 and had a point for a double break at 5-1, but Djokovic saved it with a forehand error to deuce - and then play was suspended as the rain came down and umbrellas blossomed all over the stands.

Play was suspended for the best part of an hour before Djokovic and Thiem returned to court, and when they did, Djokovic seemed to have found his net game, perhaps thanks to the wind dying down. On the resumption, Djokovic had to immediately save a break point but held for 2-4 before breaking back, playing some superb volleys for 3-4. He looked poised to make an improbable comeback with all the momentum on his side - and then was broken to trail 3-5 in another cluster of unforced errors from the baseline.

Serving for the match at 5-3, Thiem worked his way to two match points, but framed a forehand and sliced a backhand wide to deuce before another pair of errors saw Djokovic back on serve at 4-5. Thiem was once again two points from the match at 30-30, but he couldn't work his way to match point and Djokovic held to level at 5-5.

Djokovic congratulates Thiem (PA Sports)
Thiem had one more effort in him, however. The Austrian has grown in stature and confidence in 2019, splitting with long-time coach and mentor Gunther Bresnik, hiring former pro Nicolas Massu instead and claiming his first Masters 1000 Series title at Indian Wells, and although his game was not always firing on all cylinders on Friday or Saturday, he never lacked for belief or played with any undue passivity. He held to love to lead 6-5, then struck a mighty cross-court forehand return winner to level at 30-30. Djokovic worked his way to game point, but a pair of forehand errors saw him down match point for the third time, and this time Thiem would make no mistake, running around his backhand to pound a forehand winner down the line to wrap up the  6-2, 3-6, 7-5, 5-7, 7-5 victory in four hours and 19 minutes.

'Credit to him. He just played the right shots and put me out of the comfortable position in the court,' Djokovic said. 'Then he could open up as he did in the match point and finish off with a winner.'

It's the first defeat Djokovic has suffered at Grand Slam level since losing to Marco Cecchinato in the quarterfinals of the French Open last year, and ended the Serb's hopes of holding all four Grand Slam titles at the same time, something he so memorably achieved in 2016 when he completed the career Slam at Roland Garros. But it makes sense that the defeat comes at the hands of Thiem, who has established himself as the third best player on clay over the last few seasons, reaching four consecutive French Open semifinals.

'He played great, especially in the important moments. Made some really good slices and passing shots. He just managed to put one ball extra in the court at the end of the match,' Djokovic said afterwards. 

'[He hit] heavy forehands and down the wind from one side was much easier to play the entire match. Obviously when we came back the last time, there was a bit less wind, but still, it was a lot of advantage, so to say, playing from that one end. But congratulations to him. He's playing great tennis. He showed why he's one of the best players in the world, and I wish him best for the final.'

Thiem was matter-of-fact about the various vicissitudes of rain, wind and scheduling that have left him playing four days in a row from Thursday's delayed quarterfinals to Sunday's final.

'It was an epic match. I mean, so many ups and downs and rain, going back to the locker, on court again,' Thiem said. 'Somehow I had the feeling that I had the lead in the whole match, and then at the end it got so tough. And at the end, both of us could [have] won, and I luckily got the better in the end.'

The Austrian is one of just two men who have beaten Nadal four or more times on clay, doing so most recently in Barcelona to end Nadal's hopes of winning a twelfth title there. Could he do the same thing at Roland Garros on Sunday, where Nadal is going for his twelfth title?

'To play Rafa here on this court, is always the ultimate challenge, one of the toughest challenges sports in general give. I played a really good match against him in Barcelona. It was six weeks ago. So of course I'll try to do similar [things] even though it's way tougher to play him here,' Thiem said. 

'But I'll try to keep all the positive emotions I'm having right now from this amazing match today, and go with a really positive mind into the match tomorrow, and then we'll see.'

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Thiem to face Nadal in French Open final after ousting Djokovic in two-day semifinal

Dominic Thiem ended Novak Djokovic's 27-match winning streak at Grand Slam level, beating the world no. 1 6-2, 3-6, 7-5, 5-7, 7-5 in a match played over two days to set up a re-match of last year's French Open final clash with Rafael Nadal

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