Can Dominic Thiem end Alexander Zverev’s Nitto ATP Finals title defence when they meet in the semi-finals on Saturday night? Or will last year’s winner make it back-to-back finals in London?
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Thiem and Zverev square off for the first time this season as they duel for a spot in the championship match at the Nitto ATP Finals.
While Zverev is competing in his second straight semi-final at this tournament, Thiem is into the last four for the first time in four attempts. The Austrian hadn’t had much joy in London in the previous three seasons, winning just one match in each of those years, and crashing out in the round-robin phase, but he has put together a fine run this year, beating both Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic to seal his semi-final spot after two matches.
He lost to Matteo Berrettini in his final group match, but that was effectively a dead rubber, as Thiem had already won the group and Berrettini had no chance of progressing. The Austrian appeared to be holding back in that contest, and was certainly well short of the level he had produced in his previous victories over Federer and Djokovic.
The challenge for Thiem now will be to switch gears again- from a flat performance against Berrettini back to the form with which he started the tournament- as he heads into the business end of the competition.
He was very good against Federer, winning 7-5 7-5 in his opening match, but he took it to an incredible level against Djokovic, pulling off a superb 6-7 6-3 7-6 victory in one of the matches of the season. Brandishing a new-found swashbuckling hard-court game, Thiem blasted 50 winners past Djokovic, outweighing the 41 unforced errors that flew off his racket.
While he gets all the praise for the brilliance of his tennis, Thiem must also be commended for showing great heart and character in fighting back from a set down, and from a sizeable deficit in the tie break, especially against an excellent frontrunner like Djokovic. It would have been easy for him to feel sorry for himself and drop his head after failing to serve out the match at 6-5 in the final set, and subsequently trailing by two mini breaks in the tie break, but he dug extremely deep, and found a way to win.
After all of that- the intensity and the emotions- the drop off against Berrettini was in many ways not unexpected. (Credit must go to Berrettini for playing a very good match).
Thiem’s performances in London have been further testament to the sharp progress he’s made on hard courts this season, with three of his five titles coming on the surface. He claimed a maiden Masters 1000 title at Indian Wells in March, and has added ATP 500 titles in Beijing and Vienna over the last couple of months- a period of the year when he used to struggle earlier in his career. He of course, had his customary success on clay, winning in Barcelona and Kitzbuhel, and reaching the French Open final for a second straight year.
This is the first time he’s winning five titles in a year- a tour-leading mark he shares with Djokovic- and if he can reproduce the level he attained the other night against Djokovic for the rest of the weekend, he’s got a great chance of adding a sixth title to his impressive 2019 collection.
First, he must halt Alexander Zverev’s title defence when they meet in the semi-finals on Saturday.
Zverev has again been very good in London, scoring a very impressive win over Rafael Nadal in his tournament opener, and holding his nerve to see off Daniil Medvedev in a must-win final group match.
There was that match against Stefanos Tsitsipas in between, when he fell away rather disappointingly after a good start, but he’s generally played at a high level for most parts, and will be looking to consistently produce his best over the weekend as he seeks a second straight Nitto ATP Finals title. Like he showed in this tournament twelve months ago, when he’s operating at his best, he’s good enough to beat anyone on his day.
“The O2 is the most special arena for me. It’s where I play my best tennis,” Zverev admitted following his victory over Medvedev on Friday night. “The atmosphere here is something we don’t play in anywhere else in the world. It’s so special to us”.
Needing to beat Medvedev- who had already been eliminated- in his final group match to book his place in the semi-finals, Zverev delivered a competent performance, serving at a healthy 81% and winning 88% of points on his first serve without facing any break points. He got the perfect start, breaking in the opening game of the match- an advantage he would maintain for the remainder of the first set without any alarm. Medvedev stuck with the German through the second set, taking it all the way to a tie break, but Zverev pulled away in the second half of the breaker, winning five of the final six points to score his fifth win in six meetings against his Russian opponent.
“I’ve still got to improve”, he continued after the match. “We’re in the semi-finals now and it doesn’t get any easier from here. I’m going to have to play my best tennis to have a chance.”
The 22-year-old has not always produced his best tennis in a below par season during which he’s won just the one title in Geneva and made two finals in Acapulco and Shanghai, but he’s got the chance to finish with a bang by successfully defending his London title. Can he take down Dominic Thiem in the last four on Saturday?
Thiem leads the head-to-head 5-2, but four of those wins were on clay. The pair are tied at 1-1 on hard courts, with Thiem winning their only indoor hard court meeting in Rotterdam in 2017. It’s a hard one to call- despite all the obvious improvements Thiem has made on hard courts, and his impressive form this week, I still think Zverev has the edge on this surface- if he plays well (and more often than not, he has played well at the O2, hasn’t he?). It all revolves around the serve for the German- if that shot is firing like it did against Nadal, then the rest of his game will follow.
Thiem will again revert to the aggressive formula that worked so well for him against Federer and Djokovic, playing up the baseline, taking the ball early and denying his opponent time, but if both men bring their best to this contest, on this surface, I’ll still lean slightly towards Zverev to edge a tight contest.
Dominic Thiem vs Alexander Zverev is live from London on Saturday, 16 November from 8:00pm local time/ 8:00pm GMT