It took four hours and 13 minutes over two days, as well as a tremendous mental effort in a roller coaster Roland Garros semi-final that featured three rain delays. But fourth seed Dominic Thiem made history on the Parisian terre battue Saturday afternoon.
The 25-year-old defeated World No. 1 Novak Djokovic 6-2, 3-6, 7-5, 5-7, 7-5 to reach his second consecutive final at the clay-court major, becoming the first Austrian to make multiple Grand Slam finals.
"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."
Thiem ended Djokovic’s 26-match Grand Slam winning streak as well as the Serbian’s bid for the ‘Nole Slam’, as the top seed was trying to claim a fourth consecutive major trophy for the second time in his career. Instead, Thiem will face 11-time champion Rafael Nadal Sunday in a rematch of last year's final with a chance to earn his first Grand Slam crown.
"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."
The Austrian let slip two match points when he served for a spot in the final at 5-3 in the decider, missing two neutral-ball backhand slices to allow Djokovic back into it. But the third match point was the charm for Thiem, who crushed a massive inside-in forehand winner to finish off his victory.
World No. 4 Thiem took a 6-2, 3-6, 3-1 lead Friday in swirling winds that led to scrappy rallies before play was suspended for the night due to rain. But Djokovic raised his level Saturday after the resumption, rallying in the third set to get back on serve. Although he lost the the set, Djokovic was able to use the level he found to overcome that disappointment by forcing a decider, in which he earned a break point at 1-1.
But if Djokovic remembers any shot in particular from this match, it will be the one he hit to lose that opportunity. Thiem hit a poor drop shot that the Serbian got to in plenty of time — perhaps giving himself a chance to hit a topspin groundstroke — but Djokovic instead shoveled a flat forehand long, and Thiem then broke in the next game to take a lead that he did not relinquish.
The twists and turns were abundant in this battle, though, and Thiem certainly did not cruise to the finish line. The Austrian earned a break point at 4-1 in the fifth set before the third rain delay of the match and then got another chance after a delay that lasted just more than an hour Saturday. But Djokovic locked in to hold serve and then break back. The Serbian once again failed to capitalise on grabbing the momentum, though, hitting a double fault and making two unforced errors from 30/15 at 3-4 to allow Thiem a chance to serve out the match.
But Thiem perhaps showed the effects of nerves, making four consecutive unforced errors to go from being able to taste victory to being under significant pressure, handing the break back to Djokovic.