Getting Upset

I started the tournament with an all-nighter.

I was on the phone with a friend — break had started recently, so we had all the time in the world. As I often do, even to people who don’t follow tennis obsessively, I mentioned my irritation with tennis fans and commentators’ nature to fawn over one-handed backhands. My friend, though she isn’t a tennis fan, perfectly summed up the debate as a clash between “watchability and practicality,” with the one-handers being subjectively watchable but objectively impractical per my argument. I later brought up a racket smash debate I had with Scott and Blair Henley, which my friend pointed out fell under the same umbrella. Scott, and Blair to a lesser extent, found racket smashes entertaining, while I found them a waste of expensive equipment. Practicality is ideal, but from a fan’s perspective, watchability is key.

Anyway, we hung up somewhere in the sleepy ocean between two and three a.m., and with day one of Roland-Garros beginning at five, there was no way I was forcing myself to get up after only two hours of rest. There was plenty to do before the tournament started — I posted a couple pieces to the site, I listened to some music, and I thought about how in 2016, I only watched the last couple rounds of Roland-Garros, while this year I would be busting my sleep schedule to catch an opening match. And I didn’t want to miss that opening match. Dominic Thiem was playing.

A beautiful song I came across recently.

Thiem managed to take on and often beat Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic during his best years, 2019 and 2020. His stint near the top of the game saw him blend watchability and practicality smoothly. Thiem is one of the few players whose one-handed backhand can function as a strength rather than a weakness. It’s still a chink in his armor, but he hits it with such fierce power that he can use it to his advantage more often than not (that said, even Thiem has mentioned he would teach the two-handed backhand if he were coaching kids). The rest of his game was sensible — huge hitting, but to pretty safe targets around the court. His mix of power and reliability broke opponent after opponent, bringing Thiem to the 2020 U.S. Open title and a career-high ranking of #3.

Then injuries hit. Scott told me recently that Thiem had it all for about two minutes before having his prime ripped away. I wish I could call Thiem’s comeback from an injury-blighted 2021 stop-start, but it’s mostly just been stop. As someone who loves Thiem’s tennis, I’ve found his struggles frustrating enough to write a rant about how I wish he didn’t have to do this, and that was even before his losing streak reached the extent it’s at today. His game, so finely tuned at its best, has been sputtering since his comeback. His forehand is at 80 or 85% power so far, which is worrying. At his peak, Thiem would hit the absolute crap out of every single forehand, which constantly put his opponents on the defense. Now, though, the decreased power means he’s having to engage in many more neutral rallies, which his game isn’t built for. That crucial forehand has been decidedly off during all six of his comeback matches, each of which ended in a loss. His forehand just isn’t visibly progressing towards where it needs to be, creating a lot of warranted pessimism surrounding Thiem’s potential return to his best days.

It felt right that the tournament began with a Dominic Thiem match. Not only has Thiem done really well at Roland-Garros over the years — in 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019, he lost to the eventual champion, twice in the semifinals and twice in the final — but the start of a major represents a blank slate. It’s an opportunity to turn things around, which Thiem desperately needs. Best-of-five represented a chance to, at the very least, lose in three sets instead of two. This last isn’t much of a difference, but momentum has to start somewhere. Maybe Thiem would find his somewhere in a third set.

*****

The very first point of the match reminded me why I love clay court tennis. Hugo Dellien, Thiem’s opponent, targeted Thiem’s fragile rapier of a backhand, making him hit six, eight, ten shots from that wing. Eventually, he approached the net, forcing Thiem into an errant passing shot. The rally was grueling. The stands were sparsely populated; Thiem isn’t the huge crowd draw he was a couple years ago. It was an instant clue as to what it would take to win the match — lots of long, patient points, without much rapturous applause from the stands to buoy the tired legs.

Down break point in the second game, Thiem lashed his backhand down the line for a winner, but it was clear already that the match was going to be a slog. The first two games took eleven minutes. Both guys were defending well — in the words of Rowan Ricardo Phillips’ The Circuit, “clay swallows winners and spits them back at the player who hit them.” Each point had to be earned, either by a spectacular shot or by methodically breaking down the opponent’s defenses.

Dellien won the first set 6-3, playing some fantastic tennis. He attacked with backhands down the line and kept Thiem on the move despite only hitting a few winners. Thiem had some vintage moments — a forehand winner down the line on the run, a couple backhand winners down the line — but the story was similar to his other comeback matches. There were no break points to capitalize on, there were few moments of pure confidence. It was as if someone was trying to do an impression of Dominic Thiem.

I felt good about Thiem’s chances to ease into the match after losing the first set, but he instantly committed the cardinal sin of falling down a break at the start of the second set. A line-kissing backhand winner at love-30 wasn’t enough to save him. The mix of practical consistency and eye-popping power was way off, with Thiem blending overly passive play with excessively risky shots. I started to drift off, nearly 24 hours without sleep taking their toll. When I forced my eyes open, Thiem was down 3-6, 2-6, 0-2. The match was all but over. I didn’t feel like riding along to the finish line, so I went upstairs to sleep for a few hours. When I woke up, I got to wonder for a moment if the scoreline had been a bad dream.

Dellien looked sympathetic towards Thiem as they shook hands at the net. Screenshot: Eurosport

*****

Upsets happen constantly in tennis. A lot of the time, upsets seem to have nothing to do with the players and more just the latest manifestation of the tennis’s unpredictability. At the 2016 Australian Open, Novak Djokovic hit 100 unforced errors in a match against Gilles Simon. The stat was so hilarious as to be almost unbelievable — not only is 100 an ungodly high number, but Djokovic was ranked #1 in the world and had just completed perhaps the best men’s tennis season ever. His performance was not watchable or practical. He was lucky to win the match. Then, a mere two rounds later, Djokovic took apart Roger Federer with one of the most terrifyingly great performances of all time. Federer had won 17 majors at this point, but he was a total bystander as Djokovic won the first two sets in under an hour. The shift from the error-fest against Simon happened as if by magic; it was as sudden as it was dramatic.

The first half of this video should really come with a warning label attached.

Stuff like this happens in tennis. Anything can go very wrong or right at any given moment. Really, it shouldn’t be a surprise when a top player gets overthrown by an underdog. And yet, every time a big tournament starts, I think a lot of fans experience some selective amnesia. We look at the draw laid out prettily before us, already looking ahead to the rounds when the favorites to win the tournament could play each other. The prospect is enticing enough for us to momentarily forget that for the aforementioned matchup to actually take place, each player usually has to win four or five matches to get to the late-round stage of the desired clash.

Ons Jabeur, after winning the Madrid Open and following it up with a runner-up performance in Rome, was the hot pick for the second favorite to win the tournament (behind Iga Świątek, of course, who has won 28 straight matches). Yet she lost in the first round today. The match was close — she led by a set and a break, and both sets she went on to lose were decided by fine margins — but she did lose, and her tournament is over. The shock is still settling in for me, because her exceptional Madrid and Rome performances are still recent, and it was only a few days ago that we decided she was the second favorite at Roland-Garros.

There were a litany of other weird results today — Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, who made the final in Monte-Carlo (a tournament which has very similar conditions to Roland Garros, usually meaning that if you can do well at one, you’ll do well at the other) lost meekly. Garbiñe Muguruza, the 10th seed and a former winner of this tournament, lost after winning the first set. Felix Auger-Aliassime, who is ranked in the top ten, had to win from two sets down. Jenson Brooksby, who has been having an excellent year, lost so badly that I could have played in his place and done only slightly worse.

Remember, this is all just day one of the tournament. Roland-Garros is two weeks — the first round isn’t even halfway over yet. So I can think about how Thiem’s loss this morning made me upset, and how he’s lost each of the last 11 matches he’s played, and how as much as I would like to imagine he’s a contender to do well at tournaments based on his resume, he’s not, he’s barely a contender to win a match at this point. If I do, though, I might miss something important, and by the time someone lifts the trophy at the end of Roland-Garros, Thiem will be a footnote on a footnote of how it happened. Contextualizing the disappointments is practical, and if done right, the rest of the tournament will become more watchable.

Published by Owen

Owen has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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