If life wasn’t meant to be easy, it surely has done Dominic Thiem few favours in the first week of the 2020 French Open, as he has elbowed his way past two belligerent opponents,knowing he has still probably got to beat Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic to win the title. On Friday, however, Thiem finally got a break.
As Parisians braced themselves for the threatened closure of their bars and restaurants to guard against another surge of coronavirus, it was a good day to be indoors at Roland Garros, where the determined Austrian secured a third solid win to reach the first weekend. Robbed of time to luxuriate in his US Open triumph of a few weeks ago because of the rearranged calendar, the third seed beat the in-form Casper Ruud 6-4, 6-3, 6-1 under the roof of Court Philippe Chatrier.
It was more difficult than the scoreline suggests and followed tricky three-setters against the 2014 US champion and Wimbledon and Australian finalist, Marin Cilic (twice a quarter-finalist in Paris), and the stubborn American Jack Sock.
Then, after he had finished, a twist nobody had envisaged: Thiem left court unaware that the 2018 champion, Stan Wawrinka – his supposed next opponent – was about to engage in a rain-interrupted dogfight on uncovered Suzanne-Lenglen with Hugo Gaston, France’s last man standing – at 5ft 8in.
If he switched on his hotel TV around dinner time, he would learn that the world No 239 had beaten the Swiss 2-6, 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 6-0, the biggest shock of the tournament by a distance.
The 20-year-old left-hander from Toulouse, who few outside the fringes of the game had heard of before he was handed a wildcard, showed extraordinary court presence in his third Tour-level tournament to overwhelm a three-slam champion who, on Sunday, inflicted a heavy defeat on Andy Murray.
Gaston – winless in Challengers since the sport resumed in August – was magnificent, anticipating Wawrinka at every turn, tormenting him with the best drop shots of the week and refusing to bend to his power. When he forced a weary baseline forehand from Wawrinka after three hours and 10 minutes that did not reach the net, the small gathering of fans embarked on a frenzy of celebration.
Gaston said: “This is a dream. Absolutely incredible. I just tried to play my game and, somehow, I won. Everything went well – thanks to these guys [pointing to the restricted crowd]. In two days’ time, I’m playing Thiem and I’ve got nothing to lose.”
On the face of it, Thiem should welcome Wawrinka’s absence, but then, who can be sure? Little has been normal about this tournament, switched from spring to autumn to dodge the virus (and not totally managing that).
“He was playing well from beginning to the end,” Thiem said. “I really raised my level. Maybe the first four games were not as good as the rest of the match by me, but he’s a really good player, especially on clay, probably one of the best of the season. If we give him one more year, then he’s going to be super dangerous.”
Ruud was the better player for stretches of the first set, yet he lost it. The iniquity of it would play on his mind. When the chair umpire, Emanuel Joseph, got a line call wrong that cost Ruud a point and his serve at the start of the second, the Norwegian struggled to contain his indignation and he hit the familiar low-water mark of the aggrieved pro when he made a passing inquiry of the official: “Did you ever play tennis?”
No amount of residual dudgeon could lift Ruud as Thiem found a rhythm with the sort of heavy, precise ball-striking that won him the US Open. Few players on the Tour are physically – or mentally – stronger than Thiem. And this is his hunting ground. “I think that the wet, slow conditions suited me a little bit more than him,” he said. “But in general I was super happy with my performance. I think it was one of the best this year.”
The shadows from the indoor lights were sharper by the time Nadal beat the unseeded Italian Stefano Travaglia 6-1, 6-4, 6-0, in an hour and 35 minutes. The Spaniard is fully restored to championship form on a court where he has won 12 titles in 15 visits. But for once, he did not make the main act.