PARIS • Sitting courtside at the French Open on Wednesday, close enough to hear the ball bouncing off the damp red clay, you were also close enough to sense the hunger gap.
Dominic Thiem, 23 and on the rise, was throwing himself into next-gear forehands; sprinting and sliding for drop shots and exuding the sort of power and relentless positive energy needed to win Grand Slam titles. Novak Djokovic, 30 and on the wane, seemed muted in comparison.
Thiem is a remarkable player with a forehand, one-handed backhand and serve that are all intimidating weapons. He is also deceptively quick, as Djokovic discovered time and again as the Serb hit fine, well-masked drop shots and still lost the points.
Now Thiem will have to face the king of clay, Rafael Nadal, in the semi-finals of the clay-court tournament that matters most.
"He's again in his best shape," Thiem said of Nadal. "So it's going to be the toughest match what you can imagine."
No argument there. Nadal is the greatest men's clay-court player in history and is homing in on "La Decima," his 10th French Open title.
Thiem has yet to get past the semi-finals at any Grand Slam tournament. But the potential is there for a true tussle, and there is a bit of the mirror image in Thiem's game, with the Austrian ripping his world-class forehand with his right hand and Nadal ripping his with his left.
"There are some similarities, but I do think Thiem hits harder than Rafael, although Rafael, in my view, has a bit more skill," said Toni Nadal, Nadal's uncle and coach.
Thiem's ability to rip it down the line under pressure will be critical today, as will his ability to keep finding the line with his wide kick serves.
"His best shot I think is his forehand," Toni Nadal said of Thiem. "But the serve is also very good."
Nadal has yet to lose a set at Roland Garros this year. At 31, even after all his victories, he is still moving and competing at something deeply resembling his best.
There might have been a hunger gap on Wednesday, but it would come as a shock if there was one today. NYTIMES
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