Zverev Figures Out Thiem, Now Into Madrid Final

Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev (photo: @atptour/Twitter)

MADRID/WASHINGTON, May 8, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Alexander Zverev came into his Mutua Madrid Open semifinal against Dominic Thiem having won only two of their first 10 head-to-head competitions. In a rivalry filled with plenty of drama, nerves and excitement, the German had lost the four most recent matches, including a gut-punching fifth-set tie break loss in last year’s US Open final.

While Thiem has been dominant on clay, owning a 4-1 advantage, three years ago Zverev won his third ATP Masters 1000 title with a 6-4, 6-4 title victory over the Austrian in Madrid.

Could Zverev repeat his 2018 feat against his longtime friend and on-court foe Thiem? Yes.

“I know that I can do it [against Dominic],” the World No. 6 Zverev said Friday after he beat five-time Madrid champion Rafael Nadal, 6-4, 6-4. “Everyone remembers the US Open final we played. I remember it certainly and it is still going to be in the back of my mind when we play [Saturday]. I am looking forward to that match.”

The 24-year-old Zverev took advantage of early service breaks in both sets against Thiem and parlayed them into a 6-3, 6-4 victory in one hour and 37 minutes hours to reach Sunday’s final against No. 8 seed Matteo Berrettini of Italy, who beat No. 22 Casper Ruud of Norway, 6-4, 6-4, in one hour and 21 minutes.

Thiem, 27, playing in his first tournament since an early-round loss in Dubai in mid-March sent him into a self-imposed tennis sabbatical, played inspired tennis in reaching his first semifinal of 2021. Madrid has always been a good destination for him. Of the nine ATP Masters 1000 events, Thiem had achieved his most wins (16) and highest winning percentage (.800) at the Mutua Madrid Open. Plus, the Austrian had advanced to two of his three ATP Masters 1000 singles finals and four of his seven semifinals at Madrid. However, on Saturday, the World No. 4 met his match.

Playing under sunny but windy conditions, Zverev used an aggressive mindset to control the tempo of the match and to keep Thiem on the defensive as much as he could. He took advantage of a service break – a nine-minute, 14-point game that included four deuces and four break points – to go ahead 3-1; hit a pair of aces that gave him a 5-2 advantage, and won the 43-minute opening set 6-3 with an authoritative overhead forehand winner.

Then, Zverev raced to a double-break lead at 4-1, breaking Thiem in the third and fifth games – the second break of the set on an impressive no-holds-barred forehand winner that ended a six-shot rally in its track and left Thiem shaking his head in disbelief. However, Zverev wasn’t immediately able to capitalize. That’s because Thiem got one of the breaks back in the next game, then held serve following a 16-point, five-deuce game by saving three break points over the course of 12 minutes, in which Zverev ended a 10-shot rally by hitting a backhand wide.

Immediately, Zverev regrouped with a solid service game to hold at 30 and push ahead 5-3, a game from advancing to the final. After Thiem held with a backhand winner, Zverev recovered nicely with a trio of service aces, and after a double-fault burp, won on his second match-point opportunity by capping a five-shot rally with a satisfying cross-court forehand winner. It was Zverev’s first win over Thiem in a semifinal.

During his final Madrid virtual press conference, Tennis TourTalk asked Thiem if he was pleased with his mental approach during the week in reaching the semifinals in his first tournament back on Tour. He said: “It was a way better result than I expected. Playing-wise and physically-wise, I expected to be in decent shape. Of course, there are many things to improve, just to keep up the intensity for the entire week, day-in and day-out. Some of the strokes need a little improvement, but I’m very optimistic that every week I’m playing it’s going to improve, especially for the confidence. It was important to get a great result here. So, I’m happy that I think I am on the right track.”

Tennis TourTalk asked Zverev how he’s been able to put it all together this week, playing with a sense of freedom. He said: “There are weeks like that. I feel like I played well in the beginning of the year, then injuries happened. But I feel like I’m going to go back to the right path. I’m doing a good job of that. I hope I can continue playing the way I played [against Rafa] in the next matches.

“It’s not going to get easier. Dominic is also a great player. I got to respect that. I got to respect the fights that we’ve had with him the past few matches. Hopefully, I will be able to go to another Madrid final.”

Zverev did exactly that by serving six aces – four of them in the final set – and winning 78 percent (29 of 37) of his first-serve points to reach another Madrid final. His serve was broken only once and he faced just two break points. Zverev converted three of 11 break-point chances against Thiem and outpointed his opponent 68-58.

“We have had some fantastic matches. We have played the biggest matches in the world. We have played Masters 1000 finals, we have played Grand Slam finals and [the rivalry] is still developing,” Zverev said after his semifinal victory. “It is still going to go on for a few more years. Hopefully we will play a few more amazing matches.”

Berrettini chase for first Masters 1000 title still alive

With a break of Casper Ruud’s serve in each set, No. 8 seed Matteo Berrettini of Italy beat the 22nd-ranked Norwegian, 6-4, 6-4, in one hour and 21 minutes to win the second semifinal Saturday night and advance to Sunday’s final against World No. 6 Alexander Zverev.

Until being broken by Berrettini in the ninth game of the first set and, again, in the seventh game of the second set, Ruud had a clean sheet of not being broken all week by any of his previous opponents. However, Berrettini was relentless in his pressure in attacking Ruud’s serve and in the end, his power and steadiness paid off.

Tennis TourTalk asked Berrettini about how and why he was able to break Ruud and if it was a difference-maker in winning the match. He said: “I think my return today was really high level. We’ve played four times so I kind of know him in the same way he knows me. 

“I didn’t expect this performance. You step on the court and say ‘Okay, I know I can return, but you don’t know how well you’re going to do that. They key, I think today, was putting pressure on his serve. First serve and second serve, I was always trying to get the momentum and attack his first serve because I know he likes to have time to run around the forehand. So, I tried to do that and it worked out pretty well. I’m happy for that.”

En route to the title match with victories over Fabio Fognini, Federico Delbonis and No. 16 seed Cristian Garin, the World No. 9 Berrettini has lost just one set. Now, he’s a match away for winning his first ATP Masters 1000 title in his Madrid debut.

Berrettini hit five aces and won 84 percent (41 of 49) of his first-serve points. He did not face any break points on his serve. The Italian outpointed Ruud 65-46.

Mektic/Pavic reach Mutua Madrid Open doubles final

No. 2 seeds Nikola Mektic (World No. 4) and Mate Pavic (World No. 1), both of Croatia, advanced to the men’s doubles final with a 6-4, 6-2 win over unseeded Belgian duo Sander Gille and Joran Vliegen. On Sunday, Mektic and Pavic will face No. 3 seeds Marcel Granollers of Spain and Horacio Zeballos of Argentina, who advanced by walkover against unseeded Alexander Zverev and Tim Puetz of Germany in the other semifinal.

In the first semifinal Saturday afternoon, Mektic and Pavic won 72 percent of their service points and 37 percent of their returns and outpointed Gille and Vliegen 55-47. The win improved the Croatians win-loss record this season to 32-3. They’ve won five ATP Tour titles together this season and reached one other final.