Dominic Thiem avenges 2019 loss to take opening win against Tsitsipas
Thiem has slim chance of No2 ranking if Nadal does not win two matches in London
And so it was time for the first of the last to get underway in the magnificent O2 arena in London.
The Nitto ATP Finals is taking over the iconic venue for the 12th and last time this week before moving to Turin in 2021, but what was to be a celebratory event—this is also the tournament’s 50th anniversary—will be very different from the previous 11.
No fans, just an empty, echoing arena; no line judges, just Hawkeye and no challenges; no dinners in vibrant, cosmopolitan London, just the 200 metre drive between hotel bubble and O2 bubble. As Dominic Thiem put it after the first singles match of the tournament, the players get just a couple of minutes of fresh air a day.
Not even the players’ most tedious part of the day, dealing with the media, is normal. Yes, there are the now familiar Zoom press conferences, but they remain stilted, impersonal, carefully structured affairs—no atmosphere, no buzz, no asides from journalist or player.
But as every man has stressed ahead of this week’s finale, all of them are simply grateful that so many tournaments have made it to court since the end of lockdown.
And of course, there remains the drama, the intensity of the man-on-man contests for one of the biggest prizes of the year.
And make no mistake, both old and new hands can earn big prizes, both financial and ranking.
And the two oldest hands, No1 Novak Djokovic and No2 Rafael Nadal, have as much at stake as anyone.
For the former, a record-equalling sixth ATP Finals title and a step closer to the record for weeks at No1, both records held by the absent Roger Federer.
For the latter, a chance to close the gap in the rankings on Djokovic but more importantly to win the one big title missing from his CV. He has won every Major—indeed has won a record-equalling 20 across the board—as well as the Davis Cup and Olympic gold. He has not won this trophy, and in this abbreviated 2020 season, he is in perhaps the best shape to remedy that.
But taking a broader tennis view, what the other six qualifiers do this week is just as important. Nadal and Djokovic are all well into their 30s, so tennis has been looking for heirs. And all at once, there seem to be a clutch of them jostling for position at the very top.
Two, 23-year-old Alexander Zverev and 22 year-old-Stefanos Tsitsipas, have won the ATP Finals once apiece already.
Daniil Medvedev, at 24, has already won three Masters titles, including Paris-Bercy last week, to rise to No4 in the world.
Debutant Andrey Rublev, just 23, arrived in London with more match-wins than any other player, 40, and with five titles, including three ATP500s back to back, the latter pair on European indoor courts just a fortnight ago.
Even the oldest of the rest, 28-year-old Diego Schwartzman—the last man into the competition—has notched up ‘best evers’ since tennis resumed in August: a first Masters final in Rome, a first Major semi at Roland Garros, and his first time inside the top 10.
As for No3 Dominic Thiem, his has been the loudest knock at the door. He picked up his first Major at the US Open in his fourth Major final, and last year came within touching distance of winning the ATP Finals, losing to Tsitsipas 6-7 in the third set.
The incentive for all of them are the points that can be won through every round-robin match: A win earns almost as much, at 200, as winning an ATP250 tournament.
And that opens the door, just a crack, for Thiem to overtake Nadal in the rankings, which would be an historic move. Since Nadal rose to No2 in July 2005, only four players have occupied either of the top two places: Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and Andy Murray. That is how close the 27-year-old Thiem is to breaking up the old order.
However… it will come down to Nadal’s performance as much as the Austrian’s. Thiem can rise with 4-1 wins, as long as Nadal fails to win a single match. If the Spaniard wins one match, Thiem must win all five of his.
And his first would be the first measure of his form, his hopes, his chances. As luck would have it, he would face Tsitsipas for the first time since losing to the charismatic Greek on the very same court in last year’s final.
What is more, Thiem had played little indoor tennis ahead of London—just three matches in home-town Vienna—for his US Open run clearly took a lot out of the mind and body.
Tsitsipas, too, was a bit of an unknown quantity. After a stunning 2019, he began this peculiar year blowing hot and cold, not making much headway until the tour moved indoors in February with the Marseille title. On his return in New York, he was slow off the mark but come the late clay swing, he found a groove to reach his second Major semi-final in Paris.
Since then, though, he had won only one match as he dealt with a thigh problem, but that gave him time to heal as he returned to the defence of his title.
Both hit the ground running, in a feast for fans of single-handed backhands. Thiem, playing in his fifth ATP Finals, earned the first break chance of the match in the third game, but Tsitsipas looked cool, calm and collected, and held for 2-1.
The young Greek had to fend off two more break points, with Thiem opting to play a more aggressive, forward game to pressure his opponent. The Austrian’s serving was also top-notch, and he had dropped few points with the balls in his hand as they edged to the business end of the set.
Thiem served to take it to a tie-break, making two fine points at the net to do so. They were all square in points, but it was the Austrian who made a rare error to lose the advantage on serve, 1-2. Tsitsipas aced for 4-1, but Thiem played a superb all-court rally, finished at the net, to level up again, 4-5.
All at once, Tsitsipas was serving to save the set, and again Thiem hurtled to the net to capitalise on a great lob, and took it, 7-6(5). It was a point worthy of a huge roar, but got some piped applause instead.
The Greek was playing better as the match went on, and he wrong-footed Thiem to score the first break of the match, 2-1. And with Tsitsipas’s serving now hitting high levels, he did not offer a break-point opportunity. The Greek was moving better, making few errors, going for his shots, and served it out, 6-4.
Thiem, after mixing things up well in the first set, was making the mistake of dropping back in the court, and reacting rather than taking the initiative. But he went on the offensive in the first game of the decider, and a poor serving game in the second game gave Thiem an immediate break chance. He converted with a dinked winner at the net, then held to love, 3-0, 12 of 15 points.
Tsitsipas got back in his groove with his own love hold, and then forced a break-back point. He roared at himself for a netted backhand, Thiem roared at an error on game point, and the tension was palpable as they worked through six deuces and more than 10 minutes. In the end, it was Thiem who held, 4-1.
And with the Tsitsipas serve dipping below 50 percent, he could not work a break chance. Thiem surged, with some impressively aggressive tennis, to a 6-3 victory after an hour and 18 minutes.
He said of taking a valuable early win, “I experienced in the past four years how important it is to have a good start in this tournament, to ideally win the first match. I am very happy that I did it.”
Nadal would begin his campaign later against Rublev.