Thiem’s 300th Victory Lifts Him To ATP Finals Title Match

WASHINGTON/LONDON, November 21, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

The Nitto ATP Finals have been celebrating their 50th anniversary edition this week in London. Despite the tournament taking place behind closed doors without fans at The O2 Arena for the final time before heading to Turin, Italy, next year, the top four players in the FedEx ATP Rankings made it to the semifinals. It’s a first for London in its 12th and final year.

On Saturday, World No. 1 Novak Djokovic faced No. 3 Dominic Thiem in the afternoon matinee followed by No. 2 Rafael Nadal against No. 4 Daniil Medvedev to wrap up the evening session. The last time the Top Four met in the year-end final was 16 years ago in 2004 in Houston, Texas, when it was No. 1 Roger Federer, No. 2 Andy Roddick, No. 3 Lleyton Hewitt and No. 4 Marat Safin.

It’s pretty remarkable when you look at Djokovic, Nadal, Thiem and Medvedev. Among these four semifinalists, they’ve swept the last 10 Grand Slam championships and nine ATP Masters 1000 titles. Yet, Djokovic is the only former Nitto ATP Final champion among them. That all will change now that Djokovic was eliminated by Thiem in one of the most exciting tennis matches of 2020.

Saturday’s semifinal matchups – Djokovic versus Thiem and Nadal versus Medvedev – were both rematches from group play at last year’s Nitto ATP Finals. Then, Thiem defeated Djokovic in a third-set tiebreak, while Nadal beat Medvedev in a third-set tiebreak, too. In the case of the Thiem-Djokovic showdown, history repeated itself. It didn’t after Medvedev finally achieved his first win over Nadal.

Only four points separate Thiem and Djokovic

Fast forward to this year and as the first semifinal, between Djokovic and Thiem, showed us, it was a battle of big moments – and Thiem was a big moment player. The 27-year-old Austrian battled through two tiebreaks and nearly three hours of brilliant tennis against the 33-year-old Djokovic. He finally prevailed on his sixth match-point opportunity to win 7-5, 6-7 (10), 7-6 (5) for his 300th career tour-level victory and fifth triumph against a World No. 1 player. It advanced Thiem to his second straight championship match and he became the first player in four years to earn back-to-back trips to the finals.

In a way, Saturday’s victory was a major comeback for Thiem, who trailed 0-4 in the decisive tiebreak to Djokovic. Then, he went to work and reeled off six consecutive points, including his 11th and 12th aces. Thiem set up match point number five with a solid backhand winner only to be snuffed out by Djokovic’s fifth ace. However, on match point number six, Thiem was not to be denied as set up the victory with a powerful forehand approach shot and won it when Djokovic abruptly ended the four-shot rally with a long forehand return.

Thiem won seven of the last eight points of the match. His reaction at the end said it all. He dropped his racquet and briefly buried his head in his hands. Then, Thiem was congratulated by Djokovic at the net – the two cordially shook hands – and the Serbian gave him a couple of playful taps on the chest. Both smiled as they walked off court. The match was an instant classic.

“It was for sure a mental battle,” said Thiem during his post-match interview on the O2 Arena court. “I got so tight in the second-set tiebreak because to play these legends is always going to be something special. Playing for the final here at the Nitto ATP Finals is also something very special and I thought that after my first big title in New York, maybe I’m going to be a little bit more calm, but that was a mistake, I guess. I was just as tight and as nervous as before. It was so much on the edge that match, like very single match here. The best players in the world are facing off. So, I’m just incredibly happy to be through and just [will] try to get ready for tomorrow.”

On serve at 5-all in the first set, Thiem broke Djokovic’s serve on his first break-point opportunity when the Serbian netted a doable forehand volley return at the net that culminated a spirited 19-shot rally. Then, after setting up set point with a solid backhand winner, Thiem’s second ace wrapped up the 51-minute opening set 7-5. He was successful in winning 86 percent (18 of 21) of his first-serve points and outpointed Djokovic 37-31.

In the eighth game of the second set on serve, Thiem saved a bareback point for deuce, followed it with his seventh ace and held with an explosive backhand winner down the line. He was 12-for-12 in first-serve points won in leveling the set at 4-all. A love hold by Djokovic gave him a 5-4 lead, but Thiem responded with a clutch forehand winner and backed it with a 126 mile per hour flat-wide serve that Djokovic hit long for a hold of serve for 5-all. Then, a game later, Thiem saved two break points by attacking under pressure and held his serve to complete a 10-point game that sent the set to a tiebreak.

In the tiebreak, Thiem broke out to a 2-0 lead, but it was far from over as Djokovic rallied to win the next four points. Then, they settled in and matched shots and wits for 16 more points. Indeed, this tiebreak went 22 points – including four match-point opportunities for Thiem and four set-point chances for Djokovic – and Djokovic finally won it when Thiem netted a backhand return. At 7-6, with his second match point on his racquet, Thiem was stymied by his fourth double fault and later, Djokovic saved match point number four with a beautiful forehand down the line winner. At last, Djokovic pulled out the 67-minute set as the combatants reached the two-hour mark in their battle for a place in the finals. Djokovic improved to 15-1 in tiebreaks.

As fatigue began to set in for both players, Thiem and Djokovic held for 5-all, neither facing any points. Then, Thiem held for 6-5 and went to the changeover knowing the worse that could happen would be another tiebreak. And that’s what happened, where Djokovic was 17-7 in decider tiebreaks. However, after dropping the first four points, Thiem recovered and won six points in a row and seven of the last eight points of the semifinal match. He put away the 57-minute set and the two hour and 54-minute match on his sixth match-point opportunity.

“What he did from 0-4 in the third-set tiebreaker was just unreal,” said Djokovic during his virtual press conference. “I don’t think I played bad. … He just crushed the ball. Everything went in from both corners, and he played [a] couple of very short slices, you know, angles. What can you do? I was in the driver’s position at 4-love. I thought, you know, I was very close to win it. He just took it away from me. But he deserved it, because he just went for it and everything worked. …

“I have to put my hats down and say, ‘congratulations.’ I though [in] every point, I was in it. I did hit the ball. I was not pushing it, but he just smashed it and he just played great.”

In the end, just four points separated Thiem and Djokovic (119-115). Thiem finished with 12 aces and won 82 percent (63 of 77) first-serve points. He saved all three break points he faced.

For Thiem, he’s the first back-to-back finalist at the Nitto ATP Finals since Djokovic played in five straight championship matches from 2012-16. As for Djokovic, who attempting to reach his eighth championship match at the season finale and was a win away from equaling Roger Federer’s record of six Nitto ATP Finals titles, he will have to wait another year. The six-time year-end World No. 1 Djokovic finished 2020 with a 41-5 win-loss record and won four titles (ATP Cup, Australian Open, Dubai, Western & Southern Open and Rome).

“After I fought so hard to get to the final in the group stage and as well now today, of course, I will try everything to win the title,” Thiem said. “Anyway, now we’re going to have again a first-time winner, no matter what happens in the second semifinal. Both [Nadal and Medvedev] will fight 100 percent today and as well tomorrow, but I’m looking forward a lot. It’s going to be the last match of a very special, of a very tough year for everybody, I guess. We’re going to try to put [on] a great show for everybody that is watching.”

Breakthrough win for Medvedev

Meanwhile, Nadal came into his match against Medvedev two victories shy of achieving the biggest title that he’s never won. The 34-year-old Spaniard, who is 10 years removed from completing the career Golden Slam in 2010, was playing in the Nitto ATP Finals semifinals for the sixth time in 10 appearances. As for Medvedev, he’s the first Russian to compete in the Nitto ATP Finals in consecutive years since 2009 titlist Nikolay Davydenko (2005-09) and he arrived at his match against Nadal without losing a set this week. He’s the only player to go undefeated in group play.

Though Medvedev entered with an 0-3 win-loss mark against Nadal, he’s inched closer to beating him each time. The 24-year-old Russian lost to Nadal, 6-3 6-0, in the 2019 ATP Masters 1000 Montreal final and pushed him to a fifth set at last year’s US Open final before he squandered a match point in their most recent meeting in November 2019 at The O2.

On Saturday evening, Medvedev finally achieved his breakthrough win against Nadal, rallying for a 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-3 triumph in two hours and 36 minutes. The 24-year-old Medvedev has morphed from winless in London in 2019 to championship final a year later. Meanwhile, winning the Nitto ATP Finals title continues to elude Nadal.

In the first set, Medvedev started by going 16-for-16 in putting first serves in play. However, Nadal broke at love to go ahead 5-3. Then, serving for the set at 40-30, Nadal put a wrap on the 48-minute set with a solid forehand that Medvedev couldn’t get a racquet on.

Medvedev started quickly in the second set by going up 3-0 on a couple of service holds with a break in between. Trailing 4-2, Nadal broke on his second break-point opportunity with a forehand pass to get back on serve. He consolidated the break for 4-all. Then, he broke Medvedev for a second time in the set thanks to a crafty backhand lob that sailed over Medvedev’s head and landed just inside the baseline to go from 1-5 down to 5-4 up. Medvedev wasn’t finished just yet as he broke Nadal, who was serving for the match, at love to level the set at 5-all. After a pair of holds, the two went at it in a tiebreak, that saw Medvedev prevail 7-4. So, it was on to a decider one hour and 45 minutes into this elimination match.

There was little room for error in the final set. Medvedev’s 12th ace wrapped up the sixth game and at 3-all, both remained on serve. However, Medvedev broke to go ahead in the next game, 4-3, with an overhead winner that ended a 12-shot rally. He consolidated the break for 5-3 and, suddenly, found himself with a chance to win as the match reached the two hour and 30-minute mark. Serving to stay in match, Nadal had a game point at 40-30, but his third double fault brought about deuce. Uncharacteristically, he made a costly unforced error on a volley return near the net. It set up a match point for Medvedev and the Russian didn’t waste the opportunity. Nadal killed a seven-shot rally with his netted return and the match suddenly – and with little fanfare – ended with a thud for the Spaniard. Medvedev allowed himself to express the slightest of grins as he approached the net to congratulate Nadal on his effort.

Medvedev finished with 42 winners – 18 of them on his forehand, 11 from his backhand and 13 aces – and won 77 percent (44 of 57) of his first-serve points. He committed 29 unforced errors, one less than Nadal who finished with 22 winners and 30 unforced errors. Medvedev outpointed Nadal 105-94. It was the seventh time this year that Medvedev had come back to win after losing the first set.

“I felt really strange until 5-4 for him in the second set, when he was serving for the match,”Medvedev said during an on-court TV interview after the match. “It felt like I was doing great shots but there was no link in my game and that was why I was losing. He was better in the important moments, I could return in the important moments. I couldn’t make a good shot in the important moments.

“I decided to change some small things. Just being closer, going for it a little bit more. I felt like I had the chances to win before [in] some games, a set maybe, but it didn’t work. So, I had to change and it worked really well. I am really happy about it.”

While Medvedev heads into Sunday’s finale against Thiem on a nine-match winning streak and a healthy 27-10 win-loss record, Nadal ended his 2020 season at 27-7.

After winning his final group match Friday night, Medvedev said,“I like playing all of the [Big] Three. When I was so young, starting to hold the racquet and just started to be interested in tennis … I started to see Grand Slams. First it was Roger winning everything, then Rafa came and started to make his mark and then it was Novak. It is a great pleasure to play against all of them.”

Battle for doubles year-end No. 1 

At the start of the week, all eight doubles team in the Nitto ATP Finals draw had a shot at the year-end No. 1 ranking. Now, it all came down to Saturday. If Rajeev Ram of the United States and Joe Salisbury from Great Britain could defeat Austria’s Jurgen Melzer and Edouard Roger-Vasselin of France in the semifinals, they would be the year-end No. 1 team. If they lost, Mate Pavic from Croatia and Brazil’s Bruno Soares would be the year-end No. 1.

The No. 2 seeds Ram and Salisbury were stretched to a match tiebreak after splitting the first two sets against the No. 7 seeds Melzer and Roger-Vasselin. Then, just when everything seemed to go right for the American/British duo, ahead 7-1, Melzer and Roger-Vasselin won six points in a row to tie it.

Melzer hit a forehand up the line for a winner to go ahead 8-7. Then, with tension running high, Ram and Salisbury tied it at 8-all on an unforced error and went ahead 9-8 on a smash by Salisbury to set up match point. A Melzer poach at the net saved the match point and tied the score 9-all. After the teams switched sides, Melzer hit an overhead smash that gave his team match point at 10-9. Finally, Melzer sent a backhand up the middle between Ram and Salisbury that neither was able to lay their racquet on. Stunningly, Melzer and Roger-Vasselin won both the match tiebreak 11-9 and the match, 6-7 (4), 6-3, 11-9 to advance to Sunday’s final. It meant that Pavic and Soares finished as year-end No. 1.

“We had a talk before Sofia, the week before, [saying] that our attitude must be much better because sometimes when we were a set down or a break down, the shoulders [went] a little bit down,” said Roger-Vasselin during a virtual post-match interview session. “From Sofia and here, we said, ‘No matter what, we show good attitude. Always [be] positive [and] help each other and we’ll see what happens.’ I think it was the key because we won two matches [that were] incredible and we are still here. We are in the final. It is definitely amazing.”

The first semifinal pitted Marcel Granollers of Spain and Horacio Zeballos from Argentina against Wesley Koolhof of the Netherlands and Nikola Mektic from Croatia, was won by Koolhof and Mektic, 6-3, 6-4, who became the first to advance to Sunday’s final.

The Group Mike Bryan winners, seeded fifth, hit seven aces and improved to 3-1 this week. They are looking to win their first team title in their first year as doubles partners after reaching the finals of both the Open 13 Provence and US Open.

“We are reaching almost every goal this year so far,” said Koolhof during an on-court TV interview afterward. “The first goal was to play here, then play our first Grand Slam final, qualify from the group here and now we are in the final. So far, it has been a dream week. One more to go tomorrow and we are ready to celebrate.”

Added Mektic: “We played really well. From the start, we were very focused. We did not make any mistakes. We did not give them any chances.”

Granollers and Zeballos finished the season with a 24-8 team win-loss record, winning titles in Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and Rome.

With a win on Sunday, Koolhof and Mektic would become the first doubles team in history to win its first ATP Tour title at the Nitto ATP Finals.

Meanwhile, Pavic said: “I am very happy for Bruno and myself to end the year No. 1, especially after everything that happened yesterday.”

On Friday, despite winning their final Group Bob Bryan match to finish 2-1, they were edged out of a semifinal berth. After a slow start to the season, Pavic and Soares returned from the five-month hiatus and won the US Open and reached the finals of the French Open and the Rolex Paris Masters.

Dominic Thiem versus the Big Three

Looking ahead to Sunday

The eight-day run of this year’s Nitto ATP Finals – the 12th and final year at The O2 Arena in London – concludes on Sunday with the singles and doubles championship matches. First, the doubles title match will be played beginning at 3:30 p.m. London time (10:30 a.m. New York, 4:30 p.m. Central European). It will be followed by the singles title match at 6 p.m. London time (1 p.m. New York, 7 p.m. Central European), which will produce a first-time champion.