Madrid Masters 2021: Zverev into eighth Masters final with back-to-back wins over Nadal and Thiem

Zverev beat Thiem to claim the 2018 Madrid title; now chasing his fourth Masters trophy

Alexander Zverev
Alexander Zverev (Photo: Mutua Madrid Open / Diego González)

There was no getting away from it when the draw was made for the first playing of this prestigious tournament since 2019. The top quarter looked like a tough place to be.

It was headed by world No2 Nadal, the 13-time French Open champion who owned 25 clay Masters titles, including four at the Caja Magica.

Drawn in Nadal’s quarter were Jannik Sinner, the talented teenager has won the Great Ocean Road title in Melbourne, made the Miami Masters final, and reached the semis in Barcelona.

Here too was No12 seed Hubert Hurkacz, the Miami Masters champion, and among the non-seeds there were other dangerous names: Kei Nishikori was a former Madrid finalist, Dan Evans won a career first title in Melbourne and made the semis in Monte-Carlo. Finally, there was the No5 seed and the only other former champion in the draw, Alexander Zverev.

And he it was who upset the Nadal apple cart with a straight-sets win in the quarters, having also beaten Nishikori and Evans without dropping a set.

But it would not be No6 seed Andrey Rublev, who beat Nadal in Monte-Carlo, who came through the other quarter in this top half. Instead, it was No3 seed Dominic Thiem, the man many had tipped to take Nadal’s place on clay in the coming years.

The Austrian, who won his first Major at the US Open last autumn, was a two-time Roland Garros finalist, and had reached two Madrid finals, but his form had been below par this year, and he admitted to fatigue both physically and mentally in the aftermath of his New York win and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Indeed this week was his first tournament since an opening loss in Dubai, but he survived some big questions—the likes of Alex de Minaur, and John Isner—to set the latest in one of the best rivalries on the current tour, an 11th meeting with good friend Zverev.

A measure of that rivalry, which until now was 8-2 in the older Thiem’s favour, was there for all to see in their two matches last year. The Australian Open semi-final went to Thiem in four long sets, and in the US Open final, Zverev gave up a two-sets-to-love lead to concede the match in a fifth set tie-break.

On clay, though, both brought strong credentials: Thiem a two-time runner-up at Roland Garros, and two-time runner-up in Madrid; Zverev twice a Roland Garros quarter-finalist, and with Masters titles in both Rome and Madrid—where he beat Thiem in the final in 2018.

Both started with easy holds, and then Thiem worked a break point with a dazzling backhand winner. But Zverev’s serving was clutch—and big—and he held, then went to penetrate the Austrian’s game. Thiem was having a few difficulties with the taping on his racket hand, and Zverev saw his chance, using his long levers and power to break in the fourth game.

Zverev consolidated for 4-1, and never looked like losing that advantage as the set raced to its conclusion. The German closed out the set, 6-3, charging to the net for a winning smash—and not for the first time using his front-of-court skills to close out points.

In truth, the statistics for the 42-minute set did not appear to favour one side or the other in winners or errors, but only in the speed of their serving: Zverev was a good 20kph faster than Thiem, on both first and second serve, which allowed the German to capitalise on his big one-two strikes, and to move forward to take the ball early.

The same story soon unfolded in the second set, with Zverev breaking in the third game, and making hay with his big forehand to break again for 4-1.

But Thiem made some adjustments, sliced his backhand wider and wider, changed direction, and converted a break point for the first time, 2-4. However, too many errors continued to populate the Thiem game and he went 0-30 down in what would be a marathon effort.

The Austrian fended off a break point with the same tactic wide to the Zverev backhand, but netted an easy volley to face break point, and shook his head in disgust.

Would his first ace of the match save the day? It did, but only temporarily as the game extended towards nine minutes. A superb forehand, backed by a forehand drop-shot, worked game point again, annulled by a Zverev smash for a fourth deuce, followed by a third break point.

After 12 plus minutes, Thiem finally held, 4-3, but he needed to break Zverev, and that would be a step too far. The German went 40-0, and then closed it out at the second attempt, 6-4, with the numbers now more eloquent: 25 winners to Zverev, 10 of them made from 18 net finishes—all better than his opponent’s.

The two friends, who have been through such emotional contests before, shared some special moments—handshake, embrace, and plenty of smiles—as they went their separate ways, Thiem to his media obligations and thence the Rome Masters, Zverev to compete in the doubles semi-final.

The German stopped off for his press conference first, though, to comment on beating two of tennis’s best clay players back to back.

“I mean, they’re probably the two clay-courters that you think of right now when you’re thinking about Roland Garros and the biggest chances of winning. Obviously Rafa is the favourite no matter what. Probably Novak [Djokovic] second, Dominic a close third.

“Yeah, it’s been so far a good week for me. As I said, the job is not done yet. Tomorrow I have a very difficult opponent no matter who it’s going to be. I hope I can continue playing and performing the way I am.”

Zverev will play either Belgrade champion Matteo Berrettini or three-time Masters semi-finalist Casper Ruud in the final. He has a 2-1 record against Berrettini but has not met Ruud, the fast-rising but unseeded Norwegian who put out No15 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime and No4 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas.

Both Ruud and Berrettini made their Madrid main draw debuts this week, and are seeking a spot in the biggest final of their respective careers.

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