Thiem’s Patience A Big Ally In Madrid Victory

Dominic Thiem (photo: @MutuaMadridOpen/Twitter)

MADRID/WASHINGTON, May 7, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Two-time Madrid finalist Dominic Thiem and three-time quarterfinalist John Isner each had a goal when they locked in for a spirited quarterfinal battle at the Mutua Madrid Open Friday afternoon. Both Thiem and Isner were seeking their first semifinal berth in their fourth singles event of the season – and Isner was attempting to become the first American to reach the Madrid semifinals since the surface switched to clay in 2009.

It should come as no surprise that the first quarterfinal match of the day on Manolo Santana Stadium went the distance – and with little margin for error. That’s the classic Isner script in a nutshell: serve a ton of aces, play serve and volley in order to control the net, get a key service break, and play steady in a tie-break situation.

While there were certain of these elements that came to bear, Thiem, 27, was very patient throughout the one hour and 55-minute match played under sunny conditions in the Spanish capital city. And while he withstood the 36-year-old, six-foot-nine-inch Isner’s massive first serve, which averaged 210 km/h, by standing as far back as court space allowed – not to mention 18 booming service aces and 44 winners – Thiem prevailed in the end. His patience and steadiness under pressure were his allies.

The World No. 4 from Austria, in his first tournament back on Tour since a mid-March early-round loss in Dubai, beat the 39th-ranked Isner of the United States, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, to advance to Saturday’s semifinal round. He will play fifth seed Alexander Zverev, who upset top seed Rafael Nadal 6-4, 6-4.

While Thiem was presented with just four break-point opportunities during the entire match, once in the second set during the sixth game and, again, three times in the ninth game of the final set, it turned out that the two break points the No. 3 seed converted proved the difference between winning and losing. Now, Thiem is into his fourth consecutive Madrid semifinal.

“I think we all know that [John] is one of the best servers in history,” Thiem acknowledged during an on-court interview following his win. “The altitude here in Madrid makes it even tougher to return his serve. I was a little bit surprised by his return game. He actually attacked almost all of my serves, both the first and second, and it took me a while to get used to it.”

Thiem finished with 20 winners – two of them on aces – and just 10 unforced errors. Sixty-three his 87 points won came on his serve. Thiem’s 79 percent success rate on his first serve kept him in the match and Isner was unable to convert any break-point chances after breaking him in the second game of the opening set. The American went 0-for-4 on break points in second set and did not have any break-point opportunities in the final set.

“To start a break down against guys like John is like starting with a set down,” Thiem said.

However, one of the key turning points in the match came on Thiem’s serve during the fifth game of the second set. He saved four break points during an 18-point game that included six deuces and lasted 10 minutes and 21 seconds – and it gave him confidence that he could prevail. Thiem held for a 3-2 advantage after hitting a pin-point accurate backhand passing-shot winner down the line that Isner wasn’t able to get his racquet on in time.

“I think momentum in the whole match changed when I saved those [four] break points in the second [set],” Thiem admitted.

“John’s serve is so tough to return and I had to find a good returning position. Luckily, there is a lot of space here in Madrid. I used all of that and the break in the third [set] came at the right time.”

Thiem’s victory, which improved his 2021 win-loss record to 8-4, was his second this year after losing the first set. He’s 16-4 lifetime in Madrid and is now a victory away from reaching his third final following his 2017 and 2018 performances. Meanwhile, with Isner’s defeat, come Monday there will be no United States players in the ATP Top 30 for the first time since the ATP rankings were established in 1973.

Zverev beats Nadal for third straight time

Alexander Zverev came from a break down in the first set and finished strong at the end to earn his first clay-court victory over five-time Mutua Madrid Open champion Rafael Nadal, 6-4, 6-4, in the second quarterfinal match Friday afternoon. Now, the fifth seed from Germany is two wins from capturing his second Madrid title.

The World No. 6 Zverev, who hasn’t dropped a set this week, earned his third straight win over the World No. 2 Nadal and it earned him his second Madrid semifinal berth. It also improved his career mark at La Caja Magica to 13-2.

“[It is] definitely one of the biggest wins of my career so far, especially on clay against Rafa. It is the toughest thing to do in our sport,” Zverev said during an on-court interview. “Beating him in his house, in Spain, is incredible but the tournament is not over yet.

“I’m looking forward to playing Dominic, who is another great clay-court player.”

The 24-year-old Zverev will play No. 3 seed Dominic Thiem on Saturday in a repeat of the 2018 championship match, which Zverev won. His two previous wins against Nadal came at the 2019 Nitto ATP Finals and last year at the Rolex Paris Masters in straight sets.

Although Nadal broke early for a 4-2 lead, Zverev responded with four straight winning games, breaking the 34-year-old Spaniard in consecutive games with passing shots and a cross-court forehand winner. Then, Zverev broke Nadal to go ahead 3-2 in the second set and continued to pressure the King of Clay and dictating play. Zverev, who won 10 of the final 14 games, converted his first match-point opportunity after Nadal hit a cross-court forehand into the net to end a four-shot rally.

Zverev hit four aces and finished with 28 winners, 18 of them from the forehand side. Although he committed 25 unforced errors, he won 82 percent of his first-serve points and converted three of six break-point opportunities against Nadal. Meanwhile, the top-seeded Nadal hit six winners and committed 17 unforced errors. Zverev outpointed Nadal 65-56.

During his virtual post match interview, Nadal said: “I had the match under control at the beginning, playing well for six games, probably playing better than him. In the 4-2 [game], serving for 5-2, I [had] a disaster. Another bad game with my game [from] 30-0.

“Of course, playing against one of the best players of the world, under these circumstances, with this speed of the court, [it] is very difficult to still [feel] confident. I tried, [but it] is true that the serve was difficult to control today. Well done [to] him.”

Tennis TourTalk asked Nadal if he was surprised by Zverev’s intensity on the court. “No. Not at all. I think Sasha played his game. He’s a top player. You can’t expect to outthink against a player like him. No, I’m not surprised by his level.”

By the numbers

• American John Isner came into Friday’s quarterfinal match with 89 aces through his first three matches. He added 18 to his tournament total and finished with 107. He served his 100th ace during the fourth game of the second set. He served four consecutive aces to close out the first set.

What they’re telling Tennis TourTalk

So, just exactly what is it like from Dominic Thiem‘s perspective to back up well behind the baseline – as far as space allows – and be on the receiving end of a 210-km/h first serve from John Isner? We asked him during his virtual press conference Friday following his victory over Isner: “I think it’s comparable to a [football] goalkeeper in a penalty [kick] because if he places it well and it’s at the right speed, there’s just no time to react. You either have to guess or hope that he’s missing the first serve. It’s just pure luck, actually, to return it, like a 50-50 chance. So, that’s why it’s so tough. 

“But it’s not only the first serve, it’s the second as well, which has such a high bounce. Either you go close and return it, which is unbelievably tough – especially here on clay at altitude – or you, well, go five, six meters back behind the baseline and he has a lot of time to come in the net. So, well it’s just incredibly tough to return it.”