Madrid Masters 2018: Alexander Zverev dominates Thiem to join ‘elite’ company with third Masters title

Alexander Zverev wins his third Masters title after beating Dominic Thiem in Madrid

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis

It is a very long time in the history of the ATP Masters tour since so many different names have decorated the trophies at this elite level.

Indeed, the last seven Masters titles have been won by seven different players for the first time since 2009-2010. And if Dominic Thiem should beat Alexander Zverev to claim the Mutua Madrid title, it would match a record that stretched back all the way back to 2001-2002—the last time there were eight different names in a row.

And should a ninth different man manage to lift the Rome Masters trophy next week, well that would go back to almost a different era, to the ATP’s Mercedes-Benz Super 9 days in 1999.

That, however, was to race ahead too soon, but such has been the dominance over the last 15 or so years by a select band of players that the prospect of so much variety at this elite tier was causing considerable excitement.

The 21-year-old German Zverev had two Masters titles already, from Rome and Montreal last year, and also made the final in Miami this March before reaching his fourth Masters final in Madrid.

And to give the young player’s achievement some context, it had been eight years since anyone not named Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray had won more than two Masters titles—Andy Roddick managed his fifth in 2010—and the only other active player with two was Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

So three Masters titles would take Zverev into very special company.

But a victory for Thiem would also be significant. The Austrian had outstripped his younger rival at Major level with two semi-final runs at the French Open, but he was yet to win a Masters.

Both men were certainly at the top of their games in the Spanish capital, and had wowed the crowds with their energy and attack against very fine opposition. Thiem, having beaten Nadal in Rome last year, became the first to do so again on clay, halting the 50 straight sets that Nadal had stacked up in the process. He also beat the dangerous Borna Coric in a tough three setter, and sailed past No6 seed Kevin Anderson.

In the process, he had notched up more sets and more time on court than Zverev, whose only seeded win was John Isner, but the German accounted for the charismatic Denis Shapovalov in under an hour, had was yet to be broken in the tournament.

Their head-to-head did favour Thiem, 4-1, and 3-0 on clay, but a lot had happened in the 15 months since their last match. Zverev had won both those Masters, one of them on clay, and had overtaken Thiem to sit at No3 in the ranks.

As for their results coming into the final, there was nothing in it: a 22-6 win-loss rate to Thiem, 22-7 to Zverev. Each had won a title, too, both on clay.

In short, it was a mouth-watering prospect.

But in the event, the contest was unable to live up to the thrills of their earlier rounds. Thiem looked more inhibited in both court position and tactics than he had done against either Nadal or Anderson. There was little of the full-blooded hitting from the glorious one-handed backhand that had undone Nadal down the wings, and less slice and fewer drop shots to break up the power and rhythm of his opponent at the back of the court.

Zverev, in contrast, looked assured, calm and dominant. He broke immediately, helped by a couple of errors and then a double fault. Thiem would hold to love in the third game, but was unable to make many inroads on the German serve which was big, varied and placed consistently well. By midway through the set, Thiem had managed just one winner to nine errors, and he retreated further behind the baseline with each serve from his opponent.

There was a glimmer of a chance as Zverev served for the set, 0-30, but five consecutive strong serves, and he had sealed it, 6-4, after just 36 minutes.

Thiem seemed out of ideas, all the more so after another quick break in the opener of the second set. He had, thus far, made not one backhand winner—an extraordinary contrast with the repeated passes inflicted on Nadal. He did fend off two break points in the third game, and then worked Zverev to deuce for only the second time in the match in the sixth, but the German held, 4-2.

Thiem did begin to go on the offensive as the set advanced, and got his winner rate into double figures, but in truth, Zverev never looked like cracking. His movement across the baseline for such a tall man is increasingly impressive—and much credit must go to his training work with Jez Green in achieving a fine balance between strength and mobility.

With his confidence sky high, then, Zverev served out with a flourish, first a touch volley, then one last big serve, and he was a three-time Masters champion, 6-4, in just 78 minutes.

The oh-so-mature young German now leads the tour in match-wins, 26, and has reinforced his position among the higher ranks: No3, and with three Masters in the span of a year. And not only did he remain unbroken all week, he faced just one break point throughout.

Can he defend his title to make it four Masters in Rome? He inserted a cautionary note:

“Of course this gives me confidence going into Rome, but it will be difficult. I’ve played a lot of tennis and two weeks in a row.”

And of his opponent, he had encouraging words. After all, it was Thiem who beat Nadal in Rome last year as well as in Madrid this week:

“Beating Rafa in Spain on a clay court is an amazing achievement. I’m very sure in the near future you are going to win multiple of these events.”

He then turned to the team who that has helped mould this young man into such an assured and formidable player at just turned 21.

“Jez, three hours every day in the gym, trying to build some muscle—which you still can’t see on me! And Dad, the most important person in my team, making me grow up, not only on the court but to the man who I am today.”

Yes, Rome will be interesting. As second seed, Zverev can only encounter Nadal if he reaches the final, and before that, Nadal could again face Thiem in the quarters.

If the seedings play out in Zverev’s quarter, he could face a few tests of his own come the third round—Kyle Edmund, then perhaps David Goffin or Juan Martin del Potro. All that conditioning work, then, will be thoroughly tested if Zverev is to defend his title.

Novak Djokovic is defending champion at the Mutua Madrid Open (Photo: Marianne Bevis)
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