Three times before, the young Austrian had qualified for the Nitto ATP Finals, and three times he had failed to get through the round-robin phases. This year, he found himself in the same group as the only former champions among the elite eight, six-time winner Roger Federer and five-time winner Novak Djokovic.
He need not have worried. His outstanding season, that included five titles despite being hit by illness more than once during 2019, earned him his first Masters title—and perhaps the most prestigious, Indian Wells—plus a second run to the Roland Garros final.
Along the way, he had notched up wins over Federer, Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, and he continued that kind of form in a blistering display over both former champions. He did not beat the fourth man Matteo Berrettini, but then he did not need to. He was already assured of being top of the group.
He had good reason to be optimistic about his semi-final match too, even though it was against the defending champion Alexander Zverev.
The young German, still only 22 years old, had blown hot and cold since the biggest win of his career here last year: He too beat Federer and Djokovic to do so.
He arrived with just one title in the bag this year, but after a number of off-court problems earlier in the season, there were certainly signs that his big-hitting confidence was on the mend. He made the final at the Shanghai Masters and had made Nadal look second-rate in a stunning, aggressive display in his opening round-robin match.
But he had a 2-5 deficit against Thiem, and he had been hugely impressed by the Austrian’s display this week:
“He’s been playing some unbelievable tennis, maybe the best tennis that we have ever seen from him. Actually, beating Roger and Novak on this court is very special. Doing it back to back is very, very difficult.
In fact Thiem and Zverev had not played since the French Open last year, where the Austrian dropped just seven games. He also won the pair’s only previous match on an indoor hard court, in Rotterdam in 2017. But the German likes no court better than this one, as he said after his victory against Nadal, a match packed with 140mph serving:
“This arena, this place is special to me. I feel different here, and this kind of feeling I want to take to next year to the next tournament. Doesn’t matter if I win or lose. Obviously, I want to win and I’ll do everything I can.”
News had it, before the match, that Thiem had picked up a cold during the week—and the weather in London had grown progressively more damp and cold. It was a situation not helped by the boat trip that the players take from their Westminster-based hotel.
Certainly he was the first to come under pressure in this match, facing a break point in the third game and then in the fifth as well. Zverev was serving the better, an impressive 90 percent, while Thiem struggled.
All at once, though, serving to take the set to a tie-break, Zverev made two loose errors to offer up break points, and berated his box to let off steam. But pausing dangerously long between first and second serve, he double faulted to concede the set, 7-5.
He smashed his racket to the ground in disgust at letting his biggest weapon, his serve, fail so drastically, especially when his percentage was still up at 84 percent compared with Thiem’s 50 on first deliveries.
It was a blow, and the kind that had crept into a number of matches this year.
Come the second set, and it was increasingly clear that the crowd was behind the Austrian player, and his tennis rose in response. The two stayed on serve until the sixth game, and then Zverev littered the court with errors, twice thumping overheads way too long, and Thiem broke at the third time of asking, and boldly injected some net plays into the equation.
He had to save a couple of break-back chances to hold for 5-2, but made no mistake in serving it out, 6-3, with first an ace, then a big serve-and-forehand play, his 22nd winner of the match.
It had not been vintage Thiem, but it had been more than enough to beat the still-unpredictable tennis of Zverev, in little more than an hour and a half. And it takes the Austrian to the final for the first time.
His quiet and modest way has endeared Thiem to Londoners, as has his expansive single-handed style of play that brings elements of Stan Wawrinka and perhaps increasingly a little of the attacking Federer to the party.
“It’s a big, big dream coming true for me. This is one of the most prestigious tournaments of the year, and I’m getting to play the final tomorrow. It’s unreal for me. To beat the defending champion, and a very good friend and unbelievable player, is always a great achievement, and I’m very, very happy.
He also reassured that he is gradually getting on top of the cold virus that has hampered him for a few days, and he will need every ounce of strength to beat Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final. The 26-year-old has beaten the young Greek four times in six meetings, including Beijing just a month or so ago—but he had to come back from a set down to win the title.
Both players have beaten Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer this year, both have one-handed backhands, both will have huge national support. And both could win the last and biggest trophy in 2019’s ATP calendar.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge