PARIS (Reuters) - American Steve Johnson played his heart out in a losing cause under electric Roland Garros skies on Friday, trading power and precision with Austrian hotshot Dominic Thiem in three sets of tension-filled tennis.
Like the rain clouds gathering overhead, punctuated by rumbles of thunder and a single lightning strike, the match built up gradually.
With the weather a dramatic backdrop to the action as, after a slow start, Johnson came within a whisker of levelling at one set all, he might have been tempted to think back to Wednesday’s second round win over Croatian Borna Coric.
The 25th seed revealed then that he had drawn inspiration from the memory of his father, who died aged 58 three weeks ago.
Sixth seed Thiem, a semi-finalist last year, said even turning up on court had taken courage for the American.
”He’s a very, very nice guy. It was, of course, very
emotional for him. But.... it also shows that there are way more important things than tennis,” the Austrian told a news conference after the match.
“I think it was unbelievably tough for him to even play here.”
The match reached a crescendo as the players each held and squandered two break points in successive games towards the end of the second set.
Had Johnson - bidding to reach the last 16 in Paris for the first time - broken then, he would have taken the set.
But that was the last opportunity afforded him by an increasingly dominant Thiem, who ran out a 6-1 7-6(4) 6-3 winner.
Thiem, one of the dark horses to win the tournament after beating favourite Rafa Nadal in straight sets in Rome earlier this month, stepped up his heavy groundstroke game in the third set.
Mixing power with precision throughout, the Austrian closed out the match in a shade over two hours with an unreturned cross-court backhand volley.
Reporting by John Stonestreet; Editing by Ken Ferris and Stephen Powell