But now he had to play Novak Djokovic in this second match, and as both had won their opening matches, the winner would most likely book their place in the semis. Thiem knew the scale of the task:
“Probably right now it’s the biggest challenge you can face, to play Novak.”
Yet after a year in which he won his first Masters title, made his second French Open final, and won four more titles, Thiem was as formidable opponent a player as any. The super-fit 26-year-old had, in fact, beaten Rafael Nadal on clay to win the Barcelona title, and also Djokovic on his way to that Roland Garros final.
But the test remained: He had yet to beat Djokovic on anything but clay, despite arriving in London with victories in Beijing and Vienna.
However, it was not just the semi-finals that were at stake for Djokovic. With Nadal’s loss to Alexander Zverev on Monday evening, the Serb’s charge to reclaim the No1 ranking was in his hands. He needed to get through to the knock-out stage and win his semi-final to end the year at the top.
Meanwhile, Thiem could qualify for the knock-out stage if he beat Djokovic, and his determination to do just that was clear from the start of the match. It was the Serb who raced to a quick lead with a break in the fourth game, but the Austrian immediately got the break back to love, finding a couple of stunning winners, one a crowd-pleasing off-backhand winner.
The two men were now fully engaged, teasing and testing through some outstanding rallies, and Thiem had to fight off two break points for 3-3. He was making winners off both wings, but Djokovic was playing controlled, error-free tennis, plying the lines, refusing to give an inch. Indeed he would make only two errors in the entire set.
They headed to a tie break, and there, Thiem’s determination to play aggressive, point-winning tennis proved fatal, for after pulling back a 2-4 deficit to 5-5, he over-hit a forehand to offer up set point, and Djokovic obliged, 7-6(5).
Thiem did not back off, though. He upped the pace, whipping forehands wide and making driving backhands look easy. He broke in the second game, and never lost control, serving out the set, 6-3. Djokovic’s error count had risen, as had Thiem’s winner count, and the latter earned the Austrian a break in the first game of the decider.
But the Serb was not about to let this slip. He could not immediately convert two break-back chances, but he was finding his pin-point range again, hitting lines and corners with precise depth. Thiem’s 3-1 lead was whittled down as he gave up the break back, and Djokovic served cleanly to take back the lead, 4-3.
Could Thiem stay mentally resilient in the face of such a test and such a prize?
Djokovic applied the thumb-screws with a ruthless love service game, and now Thiem had to serve to save the match. He did, too, cranking up the serve to 137mph, and was then in full pomp again to force errors for a love break. This time, the younger man would serve for the match.
Still it was not to be, as the best returner in tennis slapped returns at the Austrian to break straight back. It would take another tie-break.
Now Djokovic seemed to have the momentum, and Thiem appeared to buckle with two over-hit volleys and a double fault: 3-0. But he went for broke, and two winners got him the lead. He finally drew a rare error from Djokovic on match point, to beat the five-time champion, 7-6(5), and make the semis for the first time. It had taken a breathless two hours 27 minutes.
Thiem has delighted the crowds here with his ambitious, big-time tennis—surely bolstered by his enthusiastic coach Nicolas Massu this season—and by his quietly-spoken charm. He beamed:
“This was really one of these very special matches that I practised my whole life for, practised my whole childhood for, a really epic atmosphere, beating a real legend of the game—and also I qualified for the semi-finals, which is the best.”
As for his full-blooded ball-striking and uninhibited attack, he confessed:
“I had to ‘cos I was playing Novak, who is in great shape and is probably the best player in the world right now, so I had to do something special, and luckily some of these balls went in the court! I stayed offensive all the time, even when it didn’t work out too well, but I really stuck to my game plan, and that makes me proud.”
Djokovic was gracious in defeat:
“I thought he deserved to win. He just played very courageous tennis and just smacking the ball. He went for broke. I mean, the entire match he played the same way he played the last point. I mean, I have to put my hat down and congratulate him, because he just played a great match.”
Thiem will finally play Matteo Berrettini, who already knows he is out of contention in this group. But what a prospect for fans of Djokovic and Federer. The two mighty rivals will go toe-to-toe on Thursday for the remaining place in the semis.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge