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French Open: Dominic Thiem should be on your radar

AP Photo/Alastair Grant

While casual sports fans may be just learning his name, Dominic Thiem has been on the tennis radar for a while now. How could he not be? The kid plays every week! Thiem, 22, entered over 30 tournaments in the past year (Novak Djokovic, for comparison, has entered about half as many) and began racking up various smaller 250 titles across the globe plus a 500 title in Acapulco, all since May 2015. That got him in the top 20, but he had to little to show for it at the sport’s top events, with just two career Masters 1000 quarterfinals and five straight Slam exits by the third round.

That’s all changed over the past two weeks in Paris. Granted a huge gift in Rafael Nadal’s injury withdrawal, Thiem has taken full advantage. Despite dropping a set in most of his matches, he fulfilled expectations and reached his first major quarterfinal, with good friend David Goffin as his opposition, also in his first Slam quarterfinal. While the rest of their generation was long departed from the tournament, the two emerging contenders played a high quality match amid the looming stakes, which included a breakthrough to the top 10 for the victor.

Deep into the second set, that victor looked all but guaranteed to be Goffin, who served for a two set lead. Frustrated as one will ever find him on a tennis court, Thiem was yelling after points over being unable to find his range. He showed the mettle of a future champion though, dialing in to stay in the set and later doing this to save set point in an enthralling tiebreaker, which he then claimed to level the match at a set apiece:

It appeared to be a minor blip in Goffin’s control over the match, especially when he took an early break advantage in the third, but Thiem reeled him in again and overpowered the Belgian from there to run away with a 4-6, 7-6 (7), 6-4, 6-1 victory. Due to the clustered second tier of the men’s game, the Austrian will be catapulted all the way up to seventh in the ATP rankings with the win, which also makes him the youngest man to make a major semifinal since Jerzy Janowicz’s anomalous run at Wimbledon in 2013.

Thiem’s prize for advancing in the most successful tournament of his young career? Merely a date with the world’s best player, Djokovic, for the right to compete in a Grand Slam final. No pressure, kid.

Elsewhere on Thursday:

-Djokovic eased into his semifinal by coasting past his personal piñata, Tomas Berdych, 6-3, 7-5, 6-3. The Serb is now 24-2 against Berdych. Despite the mundane win, Djokovic remains on edge, and that underlying negativity could have cost him the tournament when his racket throw was perilously close to a line judge:

Djokovic was not enthralled when journalists asked follow-up questions, either:

-Serena Williams came from a set down to beat Yulia Putintseva, 5-7, 6-4, 6-1. Putintseva has troubled Williams for patches in their previous meetings and was taking advantage of Serena’s poor footwork to take not only the opening set, but also a break lead to start the second. Williams rebounded to rattle off four straight games, yet that lead evaporated. Williams had to save a pair of break points at 4-4, though she rolled from there to advance to the semis.

-She’ll face Kiki Bertens, whose amazing run continued with a defeat of 2015 semifinalist Timea Bacsinszky. Bertens did receive treatment for a leg injury, and it would be a shame if she’s compromised for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity against the greatest player of this era, and maybe ever.

Friday’s semifinals:

Andy Murray vs Stan Wawrinka: An absolute blockbuster between the uber-consistent but rarely dominant Murray and the often flat but great on the biggest stage Wawrinka. Murray’s been far more troubled in getting here, though both had a day off on Thursday. There’s not much precedent to go on, as their only meeting since Wawrinka’s ascension came at last fall’s World Tour Finals when Murray was managing back pain in advance of the all-important Davis Cup final the following week. Prediction: This match is more on Wawrinka’s racket and he’s proven to be worth trusting. Stanimal in 4.

Novak Djokovic vs Dominic Thiem: In the Wawrinka mold as a player, the template from last year’s final is right there for Thiem on how to play Djokovic: be aggressive and consistently hit a heavy ball. A possible doppelganger for this match? Djokovic’s 2014 Wimbledon semi against Grigor Dimitrov. Prediction: A close match into the fourth, Djokovic’s experience allows him to dial up a bit of superior tennis to advance in four sets.

Serena Williams vs Kiki Bertens: Hopefully Bertens is healthy, as she’ll need a peak performance unless Williams tightens up even more the closer she gets to Slam #22. Prediction: It would be a shock if Serena weren’t playing on Saturday.

Garbine Muguruza vs Sam Stosur: Both are rather volatile, with Stosur entering the tournament outside the top 20 and Muguruza contesting just her second semifinal of the year despite being in the top five. The only meeting between the two came in 2014, when Muguruza was 20 years old and ranked outside the top 35. Muguruza has modeled her style (and progressively her attitude) after Maria Sharapova. Here’s her chance to emulate the two-time French Open champ and come through in the clutch. Prediction: Muguruza in 3.

Bonus match: Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza fell short of holding all four Slams, and now they’ll play against each other for the mixed doubles title. Mirza and her partner Ivan Dodig beat Hingis and Leander Paes in the Australian Open quarterfinals.

French Open: Dominic Thiem should be on your radar

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