Thiem beats Djokovic in three-set thriller to reach final with 300th win
Thiem needed six match-points to set showdown against Nadal or Medvedev
This last playing of the ATP Finals at the iconic O2 has not been how many envisaged.
There should have been noise, and crowds, and celebration: This 12th version of the season finale in London is also the 50th anniversary of the tournament.
However, the coronavirus pandemic put the dampeners on the festive plans. So how fortunate for the organisers, the broadcasters and above all the remote fans that this week has delivered some outstanding matches that have propelled the top four seeds to the semi-finals for the first time since 2004.
And the quartet, a great mix of age and experience and personality, has been the standout group of players well beyond this shortened season. Indeed, they have won the last 10 Majors, dating back to Roland Garros in 2018, and the last nine Masters, dating back to Novak Djokovic in Madrid in 2019.
The two dominant players in their sport, Djokovic at No1 and Nadal at No2, have in fact won all those Majors bar one—the US Open claimed by No3 Dominic Thiem this September.
Djokovic and Nadal have also won six of those nine Masters. The other three, including the most recent a fortnight ago in Paris, were won by No4 Daniil Medvedev.
That the two veterans, Djokovic and Nadal, took on the two younger pretenders, Thiem and Medvedev respectively, only added to the spice. For there were big ambitions at stake for both 33-year-old Djokovic and 34-year-old Nadal.
Djokovic arrived in London in the sure knowledge that he would equal the record for year-end No1s, six of them. Now he was hoping to equal another record, that of Roger Federer, with six ATP Finals titles.
Nadal, who equalled Federer’s record 20 Major titles a few weeks ago, may have qualified for the 16th time among the elite eight, but this remained the only big title missing from his resume. How he would love to complete the set of four Majors, Davis Cup and Olympic gold.
But their opponents had other ideas and aspirations, and both young stars had taken the superstars to the limits in recent encounters.
Medvedev arrived in London on the back of a Paris Masters victory, and although he had not played Nadal this year, he had pushed the Spaniard to five sets in last year’s US Open and to almost three hours and third-set tie-breaker at this tournament. What is more, the tall Russian was the only man in London not to have lost a match—and had not even been taken to a tie-breaker.
First, though, the ever-improving Thiem, the only man born in the 1990s so far to have won a Major, had come here within touching distance of breaking into the top two, the first to do so not named Djokovic, Nadal, Federer or Andy Murray in 15 years.
That ambition would have to wait until the New Year, but he had history to rewrite. He lost the final at this very tournament last year in a third-set tie-break. Could he go one step further in this ground-breaking season?
There was precious little between him and Djokovic in the early goings, though by mid-set it was clear who was going for his shots: Thiem had nine winners and 10 unforced errors, to four and six from Djokovic. Not a break point on either side, and just a couple of points dropped on first serve: 25 points each.
But there was a certain tension in Thiem’s face and tennis as he served for the first time to save the set, with a first double fault and two forehand errors, to go deuce. But he saved it, and then earned the first break point of the match with a big forehand winner and some fine defence. A short ball drew a netted error from Djokovic, 6-5.
Could Thiem control the nerves and serve it out? The answer was yes, 7-5. But Djokovic was not fazed, opening the second set with a love hold. And of course, based on their last five matches, there was anticipation that this contest would go to the wire. Their four matches through 2019 and 2020 had all been close battles.
In Madrid last year, two and a half hours for two tie-break sets—to Djokovic. In the Roland Garros semis last year, four and a quarter hours and five sets—to Thiem. At the O2 this time last year, two and three-quarter hours and three sets—to Thiem. And this year’s Australian Open final, four hours and five sets—to Djokovic.
Not to be outdone, Thiem held to love for 2-2 and had a chance to break in the next game, only to put a straightforward forehand into the net. Come the eighth game, Djokovic worked his first break chance, but hit fractionally long of the baseline.
Again, Thiem had to serve to save the set, with Djokovic looking more focused, more animated than at the start of the match. Sure enough, Thiem over-pushed to miss the line twice and faced two set points. But the Austrian resisted with some huge baseline strikes and serves, and it went to a tie-break, where Djokovic made four points in a row with precision, leg-draining accuracy, 4-2.
The Austrian levelled, and two aces took him to the first match point, 6-5, but they changed ends level again. Once more, Thiem earned match point with a bold forehand, only for his serve to let him down: Nerves were jangling, and suddenly it was Djokovic serving for the set.
Thiem saved it, and earned another match point with a forehand winner, the a fourth on Djokovic’s serve, but the momentum again went to the Serb, and a Thiem error gave Djokovic the set, 7-6(10). After two hours, this contest would again go to a decider.
Thiem regrouped for a love opening hold, matched again by Djokovic, and neither gave an inch through near-perfect serving in the third set. Almost inevitably, given their history, it went to a final tie-break.
There, Djokovic went 4-0 before Thiem got on the board, and the Austrian did so with a flourish, first closing to 4-4, then unloading a backhand winner to go 6-4. He served for the match at 6-5, and this time, on his sixth match-point, pounded a forehand to steal victory, 7-6(5), after almost three hours.
A relieved Thiem said:
“For sure it was a mental battle. I was so tight in the second-set tie-break. To play these legends is always something special.
“I thought after my first big title in New York I would be more calm but that was a mistake. I was just as tight and nervous as before.
“I am looking forward [to the final] a lot. It is the last match of a special but tough year for everyone. We will try and put on a great show.”
By this time, Djokovic had already left court and was in the virtual media room, clearly subdued, eager to leave, keen to move on:
“It’s just disappointing to finish the season with a loss like this, but at the same time, I enjoy competing. I enjoy traveling. Enjoy doing what I love. Yeah, let’s see what 2021 brings.”
Tomorrow, though, Thiem will go for the title for the second year in a row, against either Nadal or Medvedev. He beat the former in the round-robins here this week, and Medvedev in the US Open semis—surely a recipe for confidence for the man from Austria.
Medvedev ends Nadal title hopes in another compelling three-setter
Medvedev began against Nadal as he had played each match thus far, playing with flat pace, clean changes of direction, tactical smartness, and not afraid to come to the net if the opportunity presented itself.
He was on Nadal’s back immediately, working break points in the fourth game, but Nadal resisted the onslaught, and the first time Medvedev missed a first serve—in his fourth service game—Nadal was onto him in a flash, and broke, 5-3. Another few minutes, and he fired off his signature down-the-line forehand for the set, 6-3.
The second set saw a swift reversal, with Medvedev dropping just one point in three service games and breaking early for 4-1. But Nadal repeated the comeback, finding some outstanding serves, chasing down drops for winners, and breaking back. He held at speed, 4-4, and the pressure was back on the Russian.
Nadal smelled blood, sliced and diced to draw errors from the flat drives of Medvedev, and for good measure, passed him down the forehand wing to break again. He would now serve for the match, only to be broken to love by some blistering returns from the Russian. Tie-break time: And Medvedev found some spectacular tennis—including a shanked lob winner—to take it, 7-6(4).
Nadal had to save break point in the first game of the third, and again in the seventh game, and Medvedev was now all over the court, attacking, moving forward, and he converted, 4-3. The Russian kept up the pressure as Nadal began to look increasingly fatigued. One last break, and Medvedev took the win, 6-3.
The exciting Russian must now beat his third top-three player, Thiem, if he is to win this title. But don’t bet against him doing just that.