LONDON, November 13, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
Dominic Thiem knew going into his match against World No. 2 Novak Djokovic in the Nitto ATP Finals at the O2 Arena in London Tuesday evening that if he were to win he would need to up the level of his risk taking, knowing there might be some mistakes made along the way.
What happened during their two hour and 47 minute Group Bjorn Borg duel that was punctuated by many lengthy rallies – and arguably provided everyone with the most exciting and entertaining singles match of the tournament – was both Thiem and Djokovic brought it. Their match was the first one to extend to three sets through the first three days of group play. They played awesome tennis under the spotlight in an electrifying atmosphere. Thiem won 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (5) by the slimmest of margins.
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Thiem was four-for-four in break-point conversations and there was none bigger than his break of Djokovic at love in the 11th game of the final set that put the match on his racquet to serve it out. Could Thiem hold his nerve and hold his serve? The answer was no he could not. Instead, Djokovic broke back to force a decisive third-set tie break and quickly asserted himself by taking a 4-2 lead. However, Thiem’s sixth service ace leveled matters at 4-all. Thiem went ahead with a forehead winner up the line to push ahead 5-4. He set up a match point with an overhead winner to lead 6-4, but immediately netted a return for 6-5. Finally, on Thiem’s second match-point try, he won when Djokovic netted the final shot of the match. Thiem collapsed to the court in victory then picked himself up and shared a hug with Djokovic at the net.
Thiem outpointed Djokovic 110-108. It was that close of a match. Mentally, it was a great recovery for the World No. 5.
“This was really one of these special matches, what I’ve practised all my life for, all my childhood for,” Thiem said during an on-court interview. “Really epic one in an amazing atmosphere, beating a legend of our game. And also I’ve qualified for the semi-finals, which is the best.
“Coming back from 1-4 (in the tie-break) was a little bit of luck, but it was an unbelievable match and one I’ll never forget. Novak is the best player in the world and I had to do something special.”
The second-seeded Djokovic and No. 5 seed Thiem came into their second group match hoping to maintain the momentum that came from winning their openers on Sunday. At stake was a chance at clinching a berth in this weekend’s semifinals, where Thiem is attempting to be the first Austrian semifinalist at the year-end championships since the semifinals and finals were added to the event in 1972.
“We know how good of a player (Dominic) is on clay,” said Djokovic, who with Rafael Nadal’s loss to Alexander Zverev on Monday meant he now controls his own destiny for year-end No. 1. “He’s already established (himself as a) Top 5, Top 10 player. We don’t need to talk about his qualities. Quality is great. His dedication and professionalism and hard work ethics is fantastic, and he’s a really nice guy. So all positive things about him.”
Thiem, who beat Djokovic in five sets at Roland Garros in their most recent meeting before Tuesday but still trails their career head-to-head 6-4, thinks the Serbian is the best player right now. “He proved that also in Bercy where he didn’t somehow play his best tennis, but still won the title pretty easy, so that’s how good his level is,” Thiem said.
“Probably right now it’s the biggest challenge you can face, to play Novak.”
After Thiem beat Roger Federer in his opening match on Sunday evening, he acknowledged how challenging it is to advance through the group stage just to reach the last four.
“The system is pretty brutal, I would say, because I had an amazing victory (Sunday). I’m feeling great,” Thiem said before taking the court against Djokovic. “I’m feeling now that I have a good chance to reach the semis. But if I lose on Tuesday, for example, everything is completely open again, and I have to worry about everything on the next match on Thursday.”
On Thursday, it will be the long-awaited Djokovic-Federer showdown that decides the second player to advance from Group Bjorn Borg, while Thiem faces Matteo Berrettini (0-2), who was eliminated from advancing out of group play by the result of the Djokovic-Thiem match.
Everything going great for Klaasen and Venus
No. 5 seeds Raven Klaasen of South Africa and Michael Venus from New Zealand came into their Group Jonas Bjorkman match against No. 2 seeds Lukasz Kubot from Poland and Marcelo Melo of Brazil needing only to win in order to advance to the semifinal round – regardless of the outcome of their third group match against winless Ivan Dodig of Croatia and Filipino Polasek from Slovakia on Thursday. After 70 minutes, it was mission accomplished. Klaasen and Venus played solidly throughout and won 6-3, 6-4 to become the first team to reach Saturday’s semifinals.
“We really excited about how we played,” said Klaasen on court after the match. He and Venus outpointed their opponents 54-46 and surrendered just 14 points on their serve to improve to 2-0. “Mikey carried me out here today. We’re just happy to be through.”
At 6-3, 4-4, 40-all on Melo’s serve, Venus hit a pickup volley on the game-deciding point that barely landed in. It proved to be a difference maker and gave Klaasen and Venus the service break they had been seeking. Then, the big-hitting Venus served out the win in the very next game. “That pickup volley, I think my eyes were closed. I’m not really sure how that went in,” explained Venus during the on-court interview, with an ah-sucks look on his bearded face. Regardless, it was definitely the shot of the match.
Before Tuesday evening, Klaasen and Venus had beaten their second-ranked opponents twice in 2019 – on grass at Halle and on a hard court in Washington, D.C. – in a pair of 500 series title runs. With their latest triumph that lifted their season record to 34-17, they also improved their career head-to-head to 4-3 over Kubot and Melo. The World No. 5 pair, clad in black and making their second straight appearance in the Nitto ATP Finals at the O2 Arena, have yet to drop a set in their two group victories.
“Everything seems to be going great this week,” said Venus. “You have great weeks and not so. We keep trying to work hard and persevere together. I’m just really happy we’re playing this well at the end of the year in London. It such as special event. The atmosphere makes it awesome to play out here.”