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Novak Djokovic out of Madrid, Thiem’s Potential Turnaround, and other Thoughts on the Clay-court Tennis Season

Dominic Thiem in action during his quarter-final match against Switzerland’s Roger Federer at the Mutua Madrid Open tennis tournament in Madrid, Spain, 10 May 2019. EPA-EFE/JAVIER LIZON

By Ricky Dimon

Who will be the biggest threat to Rafael Nadal at the French Open? That is the big question just about every year in the early stages of the European clay-court swing, and this time around it is no different.

Stefanos Tsitsipas has never held the distinction of being Nadal’s primary challenger on the crushed brick. In recent seasons it has belonged either to Novak Djokovic or Dominic Thiem. In 2021, though, it could be Tsitsipas’ time. The fifth-ranked Greek captured his first-ever Masters 1000 title in Monte-Carlo and then one week later lost to Nadal in the Barcelona final after three hours and 38 minutes across three thrilling sets of tennis (Tsitsipas even had a championship point).

Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece in action during his quarter-final match against Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters tournament in Roquebrune Cap Martin, France, 16 April 2021. EPA-EFE/SEBASTIEN NOGIER

Djokovic could end up being Nadal’s main competition at Roland Garros, but the world No. 1 lost early in Monte-Carlo to Dan Evans and even fell at home in Belgrade–in the semifinals to Aslan Karatsev. Now he is out of the Madrid Masters, having withdrawn on Wednesday–although he did not cite any specific reason.

“Sorry that I won’t be able to travel to Madrid this year and meet all my fans,” the Serb posted on Twitter. “It’s been two years already, quite a long time. Hope to see you all next year!”

Aslan Karatsev of Russia (R) shakes hands with Novak Djokovic of Serbia after their semi-final match at the Serbia Open tennis tournament in Belgrade, Serbia, 24 April 2021. EPA-EFE/ANDREJ CUKIC

Madrid could, however, see the return of Dominic Thiem.

The 2020 U.S. Open champion and two-time French Open runner-up has been sidelined since mid-March because of a knee injury. He has won just a single match since getting blown out by Grigor Dimitrov in round four of the Australian Open. Thiem recently admitted to mental struggles as well, stemming from a life-changing moment last summer in New York in addition to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The good news is that Thiem’s most recent update this week was far more encouraging in both the mental and physical departments.

Dominic Thiem of Austria in action against Novak Djokovic of Serbia during their Mutua Madrid Open tennis semi final match at Caja Magica, in Madrid, Spain, 11 May 2019. EPA-EFE/CHEMA MOYA

“In general it’s getting better day by day, so hopefully it will be pain free by Madrid, Rome, and of course Paris,” the fourth-ranked Austrian said of his knee. “I was actually positively surprised how quickly it all worked, as I did very little for three weeks. Of course, I felt it the first few days (of training). It was really hard. My whole body hurt, the strokes didn’t work. But after a few intensive long training days it came back really quickly.

“I’m back to playing really well in practice, I’m moving well. Physically, of course, I had lost a bit of strength because I didn’t do anything for a while, but as soon as I was really motivated again, it came back really fast.”

Coach Nicolas Massu offered similar optimism.

“Since I arrived here almost two weeks ago, I’ve seen the normal Dominic,” Massu indicated. “He trains unbelievably. He is looking forward to the tournament in Madrid. My impression is good. When he is in that kind of mood he can do big things…. It’s so easy to be close to your protégé when everything is going well. But when things feel different, when results aren’t good this is the moment when you need to be close to your player.”

If the Thiem of old returns and Djokovic is back for Rome, this clay-court swing could really heat up. Nadal, Tsitsipas, and Andrey Rublev are already on fire. Thiem and Djokovic would spice it up even more.

Before the next two Masters 1000s take center stage, though, a pair of 250s in Estoril and Munich have their time in the sun. It’s especially a shame that there are no fans in Estoril, because the Portuguese fans always make for a festive atmosphere. They would have loved the performance of former Mississippi State star Nuno Borges, an up-and-comer from Portugal who qualified for the main draw, beat Jordan Thompson, and pushed Marin Cilic to three sets.

For now, fans still have to watch from afar in many cases. But wherever you’re watching from, the next six weeks of clay-court tennis should be wildly entertaining.

Ricky contributes to 10sballs.com and also maintains his own tennis website, The Grandstand. You can follow him on twitter at @Dimonator.