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By Richard Pagliaro | Saturday, May 28, 2016

 
Dominic Thiem

Dominic Thiem defeated Alexander Zverev, 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-3, 6-3, setting up a French Open fourth-round match with Marcel Granollers.

Photo credit: Dennis Grombkowski/Getty

A pulsating match of rising stars looked like a zebra play date on dirt at first glance.

Clad in identical zebra-print adidas' tops, Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev faced off for their third clay-court clash in the last two months with a trip to the Roland Garros fourth round on the line.

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In a rematch of the Nice final, Thiem took down Zverev for the third time, 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-3, 6-3, advancing to a Grand Slam round of 16 for the second time.

If this is indeed a glimpse of tennis' future rivalry, then the game will be in very good hands.

The animal cracker attire didn't distract a quality clash between two of the game's top rising young stars. Both are former French Open junior finalists, both are skilled shotmakers with a shared flair for the down the line drive and both grew up on clay.

On the strength of 44 winners, Thiem became the first Austrian in six years to reach the fourth round. Experience was evident on pivotal points.

"I knew already before the match that it's gonna be a very tough one, such a great player, Sascha," Thiem said. "I think the little difference today was maybe probably the three years' age difference."







The 19-year-old Zverev was bidding to become the youngest man to reach the Roland Garros round of 16 since Novak Djokovic a decade ago.

Zverev denied six break points in a bruising 12-minute game, eventually holding for 6-5. He jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the tie breaker and snatched a one-set lead without earning a break point in the set. Thiem saved seven of eight break points he faced.

"I mean, the match was quite tight, I think," Zverev said. "The score at the end was not as tight as I think the match was. But he just played better in the important moments."

Though they wore identical apparel, there's a clear contrast in style.

The 6'6" German serves a bit bigger, plays a bit flatter and can crank winners with his two-handed backhand from virtually any spot on the court.

The 6'1" Austrian favors a propulsive kick serve to create space, plays with heavier spin, prefers playing several feet behind the baseline, can vary topspin and slice from his wondrous one-hander and is a bit quicker around the court than Zverev.

World No. 2 Andy Murray sees big results for both players—and a gripping rivalry for the game for years to come.

"Zverev is a little bit younger. Quite different sort of body shapes, body types," Murray said. "Thiem, I think probably prefers the clay courts. Zverev I think prefers quicker courts. Dominic moves extremely well. He's very fast. But he also plays quite far behind the baseline with a lot of spin.

"Zverev a little bit different; hits the ball flatter. Both of them have very good backhands; forehand I think from Zverev still can improve quite a bit. They are obviously two of the best ones. Thiem is getting up close to the top 10. Has had a very good year so far. Zverev is winning matches most weeks now. But, yeah, they will be playing against each other a lot, I would imagine, over the next 10, 15 years."

Thiem, who has practiced extensively with former Roland Garros semifinalist Ernests Gulbis, knows he can make deep inroads in Paris right now if he can manage his nerve and cope with the stress.

In the space of 24 hours, the man in the zebra-print shirt galloped from being part of a pack of challengers to a legitimate threat to reach the final four as Rafael Nadal, his prospective fourth-round opponent, withdrew yesterday with a left wrist injury.

Asked if he would miss the experience of facing nine-time champion Nadal at Roland Garros, Thiem, who has wins over Nadal and Roger Federer on dirt this year, wasn't exactly mourning lost opportunity.

"Well, I already made this experience. It's not such a nice one," said Thiem prompting laughter from the media.

The departure of Nadal clears a path for Thiem, but also creates a challenge of its own.




The 15th-ranked Austrian is 3-0 vs. the 56th-ranked Granollers, with all three wins coming on clay, and knows he bears the pressure as the favorite to reach his first Grand Slam quarterfinal.

"I mean, it has of course good sides to play Granollers, but also bad sides," Thiem said. "Of course maybe I go different into the match against him than against Rafa because against Rafa I'm the underdog. Against Granollers, I'm probably the favorite."

The 30-year-old Spaniard has clay-court wins over Zverev and David Goffin this season and is through to the fourth round for the third time in the past five years.

"It has good sides and also bad sides," Thiem said. "Granollers is really fresh, he didn't play today. So it's going to be, again, a very tough match."

Five years removed from his loss to Bjorn Fratangelo in the boys' final, Thiem believes he belongs with the leading men.

"I think the ranking doesn't lie. So for sure I feel that I belong there in the top," Thiem said. "But, yeah, still I'm kind of missing a really big result, big tournament. I hope it's gonna happen soon."

 

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