There was once a time, not very long ago at all, when Dominic Thiem was better placed than anyone else to emerge as the next new champion on these grounds. For four consecutive years, between 2016 and 2019, Thiem marched deep into the French Open draw and inched closer to the title each time.
He reached two semi-finals and then two finals. He toppled Novak Djokovic twice, including an immense 2019 semi-final played partly in apocalyptic wind across two days. He was brilliant, at some point the second-best clay courter in the world, and for three consecutive years only the greatest of all time on this surface could stop him.
Those recent memories of Thiem at his most physical, dynamic best on the Roland Garros clay, obliterating the ball off both wings without a hint of doubt, make his current state an even more difficult sight. Just two hours into the tournament on Sunday afternoon, Thiem suffered a disappointing and at times hard to watch first-round defeat to Hugo Dellien of Bolivia, who easily beat him 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.
Since returning from a nine-month injury layoff due to a right wrist injury and various complications, Thiem has now lost all of his seven matches back, winning just two sets between them. His total losing streak, extending back to the period just before his injury when he was already trying to pull himself out of the mental burnout he suffered following his 2020 US Open triumph, stands at 11 defeats in a row.
The clearest issue for Thiem is his forehand, the focal point of his game and the stroke naturally most affected by the right wrist injury. At times he snapped forehands well long early in the point and other times he set up short balls only to miss the easiest shot of the rally.
His struggles were only more pronounced on the important points; he lost serve in the second set after he balked at a short ball, attempting a drop shot instead of crushing it and somehow lofting that drop shot high into the air and over the baseline. Later in that set, a second-serve forehand return hit the back fence. As his confidence further crumbled, the rest of his game followed.
Despite his frustration, Thiem was admirably frank about his predicament and he was under no illusions about how far away he is from his goals. Thiem explained that he has no additional physical issues or serious mental blocks due to his wrist injury, and he has usually performed better in practice than what he has been able to show under tense match conditions.
“I’m obviously a little bit more tight, more nervous and obviously the whole body gets more tight, gets more nervous and right now that’s toxic to my forehand because I’m still missing the fine feeling there, I’m missing it a lot,” he said. “If that’s the case, many, many mistakes are happening and it was again the same today.”
As he fell meekly to Dellien, the 87th-ranked Bolivian clay courter put an arm around Thiem and gave him some supportive words at the net. Thiem says that he will consider dropping down a level to play challenger events and pledged to keep on working, hopeful that he will find his way again.
“The key is just to continue being patient, work on the stuff which is not working and then it will come back, but it will take time,” he said. “I cannot say now: ‘I’m disappointed, I’ll work hard for a week and then next tournament I’m playing super well.’ I have to be patient and I think it’s going to take a few more months until I can really say: ‘Okay, now I’m ready to beat those top guys again.’”
As one former finalist fell, so too did one of the most heavily touted players in the women's draw as Ons Jabeur, the sixth seed, was toppled 3-6, 7-6(4), 7-5 by Magda Linette of Poland.
Jabeur had arrived in Paris with the clay season of her dreams, winning her first WTA 1000 title of her career in Madrid and reaching finals in Rome and Charleston, and she was the second most in-form player in the draw behind Iga Swiatek. Instead, she ran out of steam at the biggest tournament of all and will leave Paris as the tournament’s first big upset.
“I’m a pretty positive person, to be honest with you, I’m not going to let a match like this ruin it,” said Jabeur. “But obviously I was expecting better. Maybe it’s a good thing for me to reflect on this match and we say maybe something happens bad because there is something good happening in the future, I don’t know, hopefully the grass season, hopefully Wimbledon.”
Meanwhile, teenage sensation Carlos Alcaraz steamrolled past Argentine lucky loser Juan Ignacio Londero 6-4 6-2 6-0 to kick off his French Open campaign in solid fashion on Sunday. The 19-year-old sixth seed, who won the Barcelona Open and the Madrid Masters in the run-up to Roland Garros, needed just one set to adjust to the immense Court Philippe Chatrier to set up a meeting with fellow Spaniard Albert Ramos-Vinolas. The teenager, who reached the third round as a qualifier last year in Paris, has taken the tennis world by storm this season with four titles and has arrived at the French Open established as one of the title favourites. Alcaraz showed some signs of frustration as things got tense in the 10th game of the opening set, but the Spaniard bagged it on his first opportunity when Londero netted a routine backhand. A wide forehand by Londero gave Alcaraz a break for 4-2 in the second set. His devastating forehand continued its demolition job on a sorry Londero, who misfired again on set point to give Alcaraz a definitive edge.
The third set was a one-sided affair that lasted only half an hour as the sun set on the French capital. “This tournament is very special, I’ve been watching it since I was a kid,” Alcaraz, who is in the same half of the draw as 13-time French Open winner Rafael Nadal and defending champion Novak Djokovic, told a courtside interviewer. “It took me a little while to find my range and to get used to the size of the court.” – Guardian (Additional reporting: Reuters)