PARIS — Two victories from stitching together another perfect string of Grand Slam tournaments, Novak Djokovic was tied into knots and sent out of the French Open with a semifinal loss to Dominic Thiem on Saturday.
The fourth-seeded Thiem, known more for his bludgeoning power than his crafty touch, wove together an all-court game to beat the top-seeded Djokovic, 6-2, 3-6, 7-5, 5-7, 7-5, in 4 hours 13 minutes. The match was suspended in the third set Friday because of inclement weather.
Thiem’s reward is a rematch of last year’s final against the 11-time champion Rafael Nadal on Sunday, less than 24 hours after his match with Djokovic ended. Nadal won his semifinal against Roger Federer on Friday afternoon with considerable ease.
[Ashleigh Barty is the women’s singles champion. Read about her match.]
Nothing came easy to Djokovic in the match against Thiem that followed.
Djokovic, who began a renaissance a year ago when he won Wimbledon while ranked outside the top 20, fell short of sweeping four Grand Slam titles in a row, a feat he first achieved by winning the 2016 French Open.
There will be a fresh champion in men’s tennis, though there would be little novelty in Nadal claiming a record-extending 12th title at Roland Garros. Thiem, 25, has yet to win a Grand Slam championship. He has built as strong a résumé against Nadal on clay as anyone, beating him four times on the surface in 11 meetings. He put up little resistance in a 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 loss in the final in Paris last year.
“I said last year that I hope to get another chance in a Grand Slam final and hope to do better then,” Thiem said. “So tomorrow there is the chance.”
Past has not always been prelude at this event. Djokovic was the only one of the four semifinalists not to drop a set through his first five matches. But with winds whipping around Philippe Chatrier Court on Friday — Djokovic called them “hurricane kind of conditions” — he wavered wildly. He won just 10 points in the first set, hitting one winner.
When play was suspended by rain with Thiem leading by 3-1 in the third set, Djokovic looked especially eager to call it a day, packing his bag and walking off the court before Thiem had even reached his chair.
“One of the worst conditions I have ever been part of,” Djokovic said, adding that he did not understand how that level of wind was deemed playable.
“In the first set when I asked the supervisor, he came on the court and he said, ‘As long as there are no flying objects coming to the court, we’re good,’” Djokovic said. “I didn’t know that an umbrella is not a flying object — which flew in in the first game of the match — but that’s their decision. I guess they know tennis better.”
Though the rain shower was not long, play did not resume until noon Saturday. Thiem called the postponement “a decent decision,” saying he had “never played in such a wind.”
Less turbulent conditions on Saturday did little to relax Djokovic, as Thiem kept him off balance with a blend of short balls, slices and behind-the-baseline blasting.
The changes in tempo kept Djokovic from his methodical, metronomic best, and he struggled particularly when Thiem lured him forward. Djokovic won less than half of his 71 net approaches. Thiem, who won 18 of 20 net approaches, was able to extend rallies and chase down Djokovic’s jabs and parries with incredible foot speed.
Thiem said bringing Djokovic forward had not been “really the game plan I had,” but that the play made sense in the conditions.
“It’s so tough to volley or to play well at the net with all that wind,” Thiem said.
Adding to Djokovic’s frustrations, Thiem seemed to have all the luck on his side, too: One notable example, on a break point, was a backhand passing shot attempt that slapped hard into the net cord, but then skipped high over Djokovic’s head, landing just inside the baseline.
Thiem had victory all but sewn up at 4-1 in the fifth set when rain again interjected, keeping the players off the court for an hour.
When they returned, in their most placid conditions yet, Djokovic seemed to have found his peace. He broke Thiem to pull to 3-4.
But serving at 3-4, 30-0, Djokovic suddenly unraveled. He double-faulted and dumped errors into the net, giving back the break. But up double match point in the next game, Thiem hit four consecutive unforced errors of his own, allowing Djokovic plenty of rope to climb back into the match.
“Somehow I had the feeling that I had the lead in the whole match,” Thiem said. “And then at the end it got so tough.”
But serving at 5-6, Djokovic, with a further spray of errors off the ground, gave Thiem a third match point.
Thiem, who had fought with both force and finesse, finished the win with a bit of both. He pulled Djokovic to his left with a knifing backhand crosscourt slice, then blasted an inside-in forehand winner.
The messy, memorable match was the first five-setter of Thiem’s career at Roland Garros.
“It’s good for a start, I think, this one,” Thiem said in his on-court interview. “I’m here in the semifinals with maybe the three best players of all time, so every single time to beat one of them is amazing.”
Beating one of them is amazing; beating two, with the second being Nadal, who has never lost a French Open final, would be something else altogether. Thiem will be playing for a fourth day in a row while Nadal, 33, has had to play only once in the past four days.
“I’m feeling fine,” Thiem reassured reporters Saturday. “I’m full of adrenaline, of course, still from today’s match, and also I will have that tomorrow. So I’m not going to be tired.”