Indian Wells 2019: Dominic Thiem joins Masters Roll of Honour with dazzling win over Federer
Dominic Thiem beats Roger Federer in three sets to win the Indian Wells Masters title
It was no surprise that Roger Federer, the poster-boy for almost two decades for the unique style of the one-handed backhand, referenced that feature of his final opponent in Indian Wells.
After finding himself at something of a loose end when his rival, Rafael Nadal, withdrew from their scheduled semi-final, Federer found himself doing a whole range of interviews—on court to the disappointed crowd, in front of the media, and for the ATP—before moving on to a few sponsor opportunities and, he hoped, a chance to enjoy some rest and family time.
But he also used some of that ‘free’ time wisely, catching the match between Dominic Thiem and Milos Raonic, won in impressive and aggressive style, by the 25-year-old Thiem in three sets. And Federer was rightly impressed.
In a two-and-a-half hour match comprising 214 points, Thiem made only nine unforced errors, faced and saved one break point in the match, and was serving with the kind of variety, kick, and spin that Federer recognised and admired. Add into the mix a backhand akin to the pile-driver made famous by Stan Wawrinka, and Thiem was making hay on the slow, high-bouncing courts of Indian Wells.
And yes, Federer liked what he saw, one of six men in the top 30 to keep the single-hander alive and well, and that without taking into account three-time Major champion Wawrinka, who Federer had beaten on his way to the final. Federer elaborated:
“I like [Dominic’s] playing style: one-handed backhand, lot of power, spins and slices and kicks and all that stuff, and I think it serves him well in the desert where the ball really goes—I think I have to be really careful tomorrow.”
But Federer is not one to underplay his own ability, his own records, and his current form. And he had good reason this week, coming as he did from winning his 100th title in Dubai, and dropping not a set, nor facing a tie-break, this week.
He had reason in Indian Wells, too: This would be his fourth consecutive final at a tournament where he had won five titles and accumulated a 66-12 record. Should he win a sixth, it would be an all-time record. He admitted that such numbers gave him confidence:
“I think it helps me a lot. In any place that you’ve won in the past, it can almost feel like home, you know how to get it done—it’s not like you’re trying to break down the wall the first time.”
There had to be a ‘but’, however.
“But then again, I’m not the youngest guy out there. Thiem has never won it and definitely wants to give all he has, so for me it’s about a good mind-set and using this day off physically to be fresh.”
Federer, now closer to his 38th than his 37th birthday, knew it would not be an easy ride against one of the fittest and fastest players out there, one who happened to be a dozen years his junior, and who had won two of their previous four meetings.
Thiem was no stranger to Masters finals, either. He had played two, though was yet to emulate the small number of fellow players who had broken through the glass ceiling built by the likes of Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Could he follow the lead of Alexander Zverev, Grigor Dimitrov, and Karen Khachanov to tick off his biggest title?
Federer was, as he generally is, fast out of the blocks, with a hold and then a long, pressure game in the second. Thiem was resilient, hitting hard and with top spin wide to Federer’s backhand, and pulled back from 0-40 down, but after almost seven minutes, Federer got another chance and took it. In the blink of an eye, he was 3-0 to the good.
But Thiem was playing high-pace, heavy-weight tennis, standing forward, taking the ball early. Two love holds and he turned his attention to Federer’s serve, pummelled his forehand to the Swiss backhand to open the court, and reeled off points for the break.
But it was not to last: Thiem wavered just a fraction and Federer hit back. It took him four attempts through some rigorous rallies, but a cross-court backhand return-of-serve winner did the trick. Federer went on to serve out the set, 6-3, in 37 minutes, but the stats showed just how close it had been, and both men with more errors than winners.
The start of the second set had the makings of a repeat, with Federer scoring his first love hold, and turning the heat on Thiem in the third game. Twice, the Swiss had break point, but the Austrian rushed him with angle and penetration on his serve and ground strokes, and held.
It seemed to rattle Federer, whose first serve went down to around 40 percent, and Thiem went after the Swiss, pulled off a backhand winner, and broke, 1-3. He consolidated in style with a love hold, and Federer could not get near breaking back: Thiem served it out, 6-3, in exactly the same time as the first set, 37 minutes. What is more, he looked the calmer man, and had the momentum.
The decider was nip and tuck in the early games, a love hold on both sides as they edged to 3-3. Federer held, and then worked a chance to get the vital break, but Thiem was smart in his serving, switching to the forehand wing, drawing errors, and holding, 4-4.
It looked as though a tie-break was on the cards, but Thiem had other ideas, maintained his attacking tennis, and was now reading the Federer drops: twice he raced in and made winning passes, and that brought up break point. A forehand winner, and he had the break.
So with two hours on the clock, Thiem served for the match, and did so like a man born to it. Federer netted a forehand, and Thiem fell to the court in celebration, a deserved victor.
The two men had nothing but warm words for each other—the affection was clear in their embrace at the net—but it will be the Austrian who moves past Federer in the ranks to No4 as Miami beckons.
And Federer, after his modest start to the season at the Australian Open, has done his campaign in the Race for London no harm at all: the Dubai title and Indian Wells runner-up spot take him to No4.
What lies ahead for Thiem, though? As he joins the roll of honour of Masters winners, it marks a significant psychological hurdle for the young Austrian. He has been playing with greater verve and self-belief with his new team than ever before. So the world, come his favourite clay season, appears to be his oyster—and perhaps he is now also ready to take that step up to Major success, too.