Dominic Thiem reached the last four of the Nitto ATP Finals for the first time.
Novak is the best player in the world, and I had to do something special. It was a match I will probably never forget Dominic Thiem
The Austrian defeated five-time champion Novak Djokovic 6-7(5) 6-3 7-6(5) over 2hr 47min in a thrilling showdown rated one of the best ever seen since the end-of-season event moved to London a decade ago.
And it left Djokovic and Roger Federer – two members of the Big Three – vying for the remaining spot in the group when they meet at the 02 on Thursday.
Thiem, 26, said: “This was a very special match, what I practised all my life for, all my childhood for. An epic one in front of an amazing crowd and beating a legend of our game.
“And also I’ve qualified for the semi-finals, which is the best.
“Coming back from 1/4 [in the third-set tie-break] was a little bit of luck, but it was an unbelievable match. Novak is the best player in the world, and I had to do something special. It was a match I will probably never forget.”
And nor will the 15,000 excited fans as Thiem went for broke against the best returner in the game, one trying to regain the world No.1 spot as well as a record-equalling sixth title.
He hit an astonishing 51 winners, mostly with blistering shots described variedly as “cruise missiles, “fireballs” and “torpedoes”.
It was described as “Star Wars tennis – lasers everywhere”.
Thiem believed he would have to give everything, no matter how risky, to break down his Serbian superstar opponent in this competition between players who made up the final top eight for the year.
Superlatives were flung around with both players viewed as “playing out of their minds”.
Each held a break of serve as the opening set moved into a tie-break.
Thiem missed the chance to secure a set point and Djokovic made him pay to get his nose in front.
The Austrian’s head could have dropped, but not a bit of it. He swiftly established a 3-0 lead as he went hell for leather, taking big chances with big swings.
It moved to 4-1 and, after Thiem appeared to take a breather at 5-2, the fifth seed levelled match, with his Exocets wearing down the globe’s best retriever.
It was only the second time in the last 21 singles matches in the tournament to go to three sets. And the two warriors produced a dramatic finale.
Thiem got an early break but second seed Djokovic hauled it back on serve, believing fleetingly that he had a match point before a line-call went against him in the tenth game.
The Austrian, though, broke the world No.2 in the next game before failing to hang on to his serve in the 11th game.
But he was unable to serve out the match in the next as the set went into a tie-break.
The twists and turns continued with Djokovic opening up that 4-1 lead, but his big-hitting opponent roared back to take the second of two match points and collapsing on his back as if he’d won a Grand Slam final rather than a round-robin tussle.
Djokovic, 32, said: “I thought he deserved to win. He just played very courageous tennis and just smacking the ball. He went for broke. The entire match he played same way. I have to put my hat down and congratulate him, because he just played a great match.
“He was taking every opportunity to smack the ball as hard as he can. Flatten it out, backhand down the line. He didn’t miss too many backhands down the line, really. It was amazing. I have played him before. I know his game. But what he did was just out of ordinary. I know that he can play in a high level, but he was just phenomenal. I had to fight, and I did. I’m proud of coming back from 5-6 down. He was serving for the match. I had the tiebreak. I mean, I was 3-Love, serve, 4-1 up, 5-4, you know, maybe should have played a little more aggressive in those moments, but credit to him.
“It’s a round robin system, so I’m still in the tournament. We go head to head with Roger. Winner goes to semis. Loser doesn’t qualify. As simple as that.”