Dominic Thiem survived a bumpy opening match on Day 2 in Paris, but he'll need to be better to give himself a chance for the ultimate prize.

By: Chris Oddo | @TheFanChild | Tuesday May 28, 2019

Photo Source: (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

To contend or to pretend—that is the question.

Dominic Thiem‘s first-round victory over Tommy Paul out on Court Suzanne Lenglen left a bit to be desired on Monday. It wasn’t the fans that were disappointed, they appreciated the ebbs and flows of an unexpected struggle and lapped up the looming specter of an upset, as American wild card Tommy Paul got into the kitchen of the No.4 seed and threatened to take a two sets to one lead.

Paul lead 4-0 in the third-set breaker and it was hard to tell whether the charged up spectators on Roland Garros’ second-biggest showcourt where chanting “Domi, Domi” or “Tommy, Tommy.”

Surely they were energized by the unheralded American’s exploits as he staked himself to a can't-miss type of lead in the breaker but Thiem quickly answered back and took seven of eight points to win the set and effectively seal the match.

Paul had life, but Thiem had the weapons to end his struggle quickly and efficiently. It was a classic bloodletting in the fourth, and it will–hopefully–serve to remind Thiem of how well he needs to play in Paris to come away with anything but disappointment.

“I wasn't playing my best today, that's for sure,” Thiem later explained. “We all could see what happens if I don't play my best tennis. He was playing amazing then. It was very, very close. And of course the key moment of the match was the tiebreak in the third set.”

The third set was most certainly the key to the match but what remains to be seen is whether or not it will be the key to unlocking Thiem’s biggest ever achievement.

If Rafael Nadal is favorite 1a and Novak Djokovic 1b in Paris, then Thiem is very likely a 2 in a men’s field crowded with mega stars. Or is he 2b behind the surprisingly effective Roger Federer in Paris?

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2b or not to be? Never mind, it doesn’t matter…

What does matter is the fact that the Austrian has the potential to make a significant impact on this tournament, if he can only find his most succinct and sublime tennis when it matters.

On Monday he was anything but sublime for the better part of three sets. He didn’t seem to be quite lucid out there and his shotmaking was hit or miss. On one point his imprecise footwork left him out of position on the backhand side, the perfect opportunity to take a measured approach and hit a defensive ball; instead he went for broke and sent a shanked backhand somewhere in the direction of the quinzième arrondisement.

On another point he closed at the net and artfully placed a perfect backhand volley into a far corner of the forecourt where Paul didn’t even try to track it down. Parfait.

But the helter-skelter struggle for consistency continued for far too long and it was only a courageous and transcendent moment that saved Thiem from falling two sets to one down.

He would have been staring at a loss in a worst case scenario or in the best, a fifth set suspended due to darkness.

Neither would have been ideal in a tournament where every ounce of energy will eventually matter. If he is to progress to the semi-finals and have any shot of ending Novak Djokovic’s quest to hold all four majors, he’ll have to be better in Paris—and quickly.

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“I was really looking forward to the match,” Thiem explained in press. “It was taking long until I could step on court today, and then I didn't feel really good. Didn't play my best tennis.”

It needs to be said that there were moments of drop-dead gorgeous tennis from the Austrian, the kind of crush-your-face-into-the-terre-battue physicality that has become legend. He tapped the accelerator after winning the third set and played like a beast unleashed.

“The most positive thing I am taking from the match today is the fourth set, because I freed myself,” Thiem said. “I played way faster, way tougher for him. I moved him around way more. That's what I tried to build up on this fourth set.”

There’s no doubt that this was the case. Thiem’s unrelenting physicality, when viewed in person, can raise the hair on your neck. He plays like an electric wire gone rogue, striking sizzling ground strokes and sending the ball from corner to corner with naïve malice.

You can see the poor tennis ball morphing into an egg-shaped whirl of fuzz. Woe is the opponent when Thiem does what he does with efficiency and clarity. Gone are his legs and lungs when Theim is all there, settling into a comfort zone, teeing off and every so often throttling back just to ensure that he doesn’t become his own worst enemy.

But it was Thiem who was nearly gone on Day 2. That’s far too soon for a player of his caliber, for a No.2 favorite who is hoping to take the next step closer to the trophy he covets the most.

It’s not unacceptable and it can be fixed. Dominic Thiem will win this tournament someday. But if he is going to do the unthinkable and win it next week, he’ll need to be better, and quickly.