One-time clay-court specialist Dominic Thiem has reached the biggest hard-court final of his career at the Nitto ATP Finals. World…
Dominic Thiem celebrates reaching the final of the Nitto ATP Finals (PA Images)
One-time clay-court specialist Dominic Thiem has reached the biggest hard-court final of his career at the Nitto ATP Finals.
World no. 5 Dominic Thiem will face Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final of the 2019 Nitto ATP Finals on Sunday.
Thiem defeated Alexander Zverev, the defending champion, 7-5, 6-3 to set up a title match with Greece’s Tsitsipas at the season-ending championships on Sunday. He is the first Austrian to reach the final of the ATP Finals.
‘This is just a big, big dream for me,’ he said moments after defeating Zverev.
Defending champion Zverev was frustrated by his own performance (PA Images)
Making the biggest hard-court final of his career seems a fitting way for the 26-year-old Austrian to end a season which has seen him evolve from a clay-court specialist into a player who is a legitimate threat to even the best players in the world on hard courts.
Thiem made the semifinals of the French Open in 2017 and the final in 2018 and before this year, he had won eight of his 11 career titles on clay. But after a poor start to the season when illness hampered his Australian Open campaign, Thiem made the fortuitous decision to team up with Nicolas Massu, the Chilean former pro and two-time Olympic gold medalist, with the specific goal of figuring out how to be as effective on hard courts as he has been on clay.
It has worked beyond all expectations the pair could have had. In their first tournament as a partnership, Thiem won his maiden Masters 1000 Series title on hard courts by defeating Roger Federer in the final of the Indian Wells Masters. After another strong clay season culminated in a second runner-up finish to Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros, Thiem was sidelined by illness during the American hard-court swing. But the post-US Open stretch, usually Thiem’s worst of the season, has become fruitful ground for him in the past few months. Thiem picked up 500-level titles in Beijing and, significantly, Vienna, which was not just his second (and biggest) title won on home soil but proved to himself that he could play well on fast indoor hard courts.
That’s the confidence Thiem brought to the Nitto ATP Finals. Before this year, he has never been a threat at the season-ending championships, winning just one match on each of his three previous appearances, and in a group with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic – who between them have 11 titles at the ATP Finals – he was not favourite to reach the semifinals for the first time this year, either. But the Austrian turned in dazzling performances to beat Federer and Djokovic, and while he was flat and disappointing in a dead rubber against Matteo Berrettini on Thursday, once there was something on the line again, he revived.
Truthfully, Thiem’s 7-5, 6-3 victory over Zverev is not going to go down in history as the most electrifying match this tournament has seen, nor the finest that either man has played. There was a great deal of big serving, a plethora of unforced errors and not many engaging rallies. Both men seemed gripped by the conviction that there was a huge opportunity here for the taking – and paralysed by it. But ultimately it was the Austrian who stayed more composed and was able to be effective on more of the biggest points.
Thiem was a clay-court specialist before this year (PA Images)
Thiem found himself under pressure on serve early, missing two inside-out forehands from the middle of the baseline early in the rally at 1-1 to give up break point, but he immediately resorted to a ploy that would be a fruitful tactic throughout the match: Targeting Zverev’s forehand. He got a shank from the German and went on to hold for 2-1, and although Zverev again made life difficult for him on his next service game, Thiem held again. As the set wore on and each game became more significant, the dynamic began to change, with Thiem settling a little while Zverev became increasingly frustrated at being unable to exert much pressure on the Austrian’s serve.
It was Zverev who found himself pushed to 30-30 and then to deuce as he served to stay in the set at 4-5, and although he won a 20-shot rally to open up a slight window of opportunity on Thiem’s serve in the next game, the Austrian promptly slammed it shut. Serving to take the set to a tie-break, Zverev found his weaker forehand wing being ruthlessly exposed – and it crumbled under pressure, giving up two set points. Zverev saved the first with a long, cagey rally, but on the second, Thiem was rewarded for all the pressure he had put the German under as Zverev, calamitously, double-faulted.
Throwing his racquet and taking a bathroom break between sets seemed to cool Zverev down, and he quickly re-established the serving rhythm he had enjoyed at the beginning of the match. But just as in the first set, Zverev began to look more and more vulnerable as the set went on. Serving at 2-3, Zverev missed two overheads in the game to find himself break point down and although he got off the hook thanks to a nervous mistake from Thiem, the Austrian swiftly earned a second opportunity and this time, pressured the volley error from Zverev.
Zverev was quick to immediately press for the break back, opening up a 0-30 lead as Thiem served to consolidate, but again his forehand let him down and he was unable to convert two break points, putting Thiem within touching distance of the win as he led 7-5, 5-2. Zverev played his finest service game for a while to hold and force Thiem to serve it out, then started the game well with a gorgeous backhand passing shot which threaded the needle between Thiem’s racquet and the line. The next point, though, saw Thiem holding firm in an all-court exchange that showed how his game on hard courts has evolved and improved. Working Zverev behind the baseline and off the court, Thiem did not simply rely on battering the German down, but attacked the net, and when Zverev challenged him to hit not one but two volleys, he rose to the occasion, landing both nervelessly. From there, Thiem did not allow Zverev to have much of a say, producing a service winner, an ace and finally the combination of a serve and unplayable short forehand to seal victory.
Thiem will face Tsitsipas, who was immensely complimentary of his game when speaking after defeating Federer earlier.
‘Dominic has inspired me a lot to be a better version of myself when I’m out on the court,’ Tsitsipas said.
‘[…] Dominic has always been someone that I looked up to and wanted always to play with the same intensity and the same will that he puts in the court. … I would just describe him as an intense player. If he’s in the zone, he can just create so much opportunities with his game.’
Federer also paid tribute to the player who defeated him in the round-robin stages after the earlier semifinal, saying: ‘Seems like Dominic is in his absolute prime right now.’
Will the hard-working and intense Austrian claim the biggest ATP Tour title of the year on Sunday?