Madrid | Thiem saves match points to beat Federer
After world No.1 Novak Djokovic got a walk over win following Cilic’s withdrawal (food poisoning), Dominic Thiem set up a meeting with him after a nail-biter, while Tsitsipas ousted defending champion Zverev and Nadal started looking like himself, trouncing Wawrinka.
Losing With Match Points Is The Worst. Roger Federer
D. Thiem (Aut, 5) d. R. Federer (Swi, 3, seeded 4th) 3-6 7-6 (11) 6-4
Sometimes an anticipated event holds true to its promise, and this was the case, by all means. Dominic Thiem has consistently been the second best clay specialist for two years, while Roger Federer is… Roger Federer, so fireworks were expected out of this one, as Thiem narrowly escaped a straight sets defeat to finally strong-arm Federer’s anticipatory prowess with his deep, arcuated shots, heavy to the point of soaking.
Anyway, if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it, as Federer started his first return game with his feet well inside the baseline, and immediately took Thiem to a deuce, but instead of hitting topspin returns, he often blocked, knowing well that Thiem’s Western grip doesn’t cope well with balls closer to the ground, and earned a break point this way, succeeding on the second chance. Once they got into a rare (and short) rally, the Swiss reverted to his tactics from the previous days, exaggerating the anticipation of his shots to take some time off of Thiem’s executions. What’s interesting to notice is that Federer absolutely prevented the beginning of a rally, killing them in the cradle with hyper-aggressive hitting, which, while not always perfect, still didn’t give any rhythm to his usually methodic foe.
Another Thiem’s feature that Federer could exploit very well was his deep return position, whose elicited higher trajectories can be countered with serve&volley off of wide serves, and he often pierced him that way, especially in the first point of each serving game, clearly to set the tone – Thiem mimicked him in the eighth game, but it was more trash parody than educated emulation. In the ninth game, Thiem finally stood closer, and forced a forehand error, finally dictating a rally, but too late, as Federer bagged the set in exactly half an hour. The scariest part is that Federer appears to be adding things day after day: on Thursday, he only had a 41% of first serves in the first set; 24 hours later, it was 84%, more than double, which isn’t a sustainable number but is impressive nonetheless.
The new returning approach of the Austrian was evident in the second game of the second set, fetching him two break points, but Federer adapted very quickly (unlike most old men) and responded with a drop shot and a winner off the bounce. Three more materialised in the sixth game, but Federer saved them with an absurdly deep kick second serve, an inside-in forehand, and an unreturned wide serve. Meanwhile, Thiem found his first serve, raising his percentages from 56% in and 71% of points to final totals of 70% and 81%, and didn’t concede a single break point in the whole second set, which consequently ended in a tie-break.
There, Federer took the immediate mini-break behind a banal forehand mistake, backing it up for a 3-0 lead. However, Thiem got it back with his most improved shot, the early backhand return, and earned two set points behind an inside-in that landed within an inch of the baseline. Federer saved them both, the second return with a sci-fi backhand drop shot. The Swiss saved another on his serve, and rose to a first match point on 8-7, wasting it on a hurried forehand return. Thiem then hit a winning serve to the T, for set point number four, but Federer cancelled it with serve&smash combination. An ace to the T gifted him another match point, but the Austrian was aggressive, targeting the backhand twice and eliciting a mistake. Another winning serve from Thiem was deleted by a Federer one, but then a misguided serve&volley on a second serve was punished by a forehand passing shot, procuring Thiem a set point on his own serve, which he exploited with a smash to send it to a third set.
In the third set, Thiem’s loopier strikes looked more solid, given their more muscular nature and the age difference between the two, so it felt more like a question of when, rather than if, and Thiem broke for the first time with a big forehand. Federer fought back, but Thiem saved two break points. However, the 20-time Slam champion locked him in tight rallies, breaking back in the eighth game, but it felt more of a cohincidence, as Thiem scored three more break points, scrapping a 5-4 lead with an apparently, but only apparently, long return that Federer left on a serve&volley. Thiem then held quickly and won in two hours and eleven minutes. This was the twenty-first time that Federer lost after having a match point in his favour (about 7% of his defeats, not a small amount), but he certainly got a good feeling from his first clay outing since 2016. Thiem will face Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals, hoping for a third final bid in the Spanish capital.
S. Tsitsipas (Gre, 9, seeded 8th) d. A. Zverev (Ger, 4, seeded 3rd) 7-5 3-6 6-2
The most luminous stars of what has been dubbed the NextGen (although technically Zerev isn’t part of it anymore) squared off on the Arantxa Sanchez, with Stefanos Tsitsipas ousting the defending champion in a tense match that showcased why tennis is sometimes called “the devil’s game,” in which a point can redesign the whole emotional landscape of a duel.
The players, who have a shared Russian heritage, don’t love each other, to say the least, ever since Tsitsipas saved two match points against Sascha in Toronto last August, dethroning him just like he did on Friday night. The coldness between the two was evident at times, such as when, at 1-1 40-40, Zverev got a time violation and he claimed that it was his opponent who wasn’t ready for the return of serve, initiating an argument with the umpire that lasted a few minutes and continued into the break.
Nonetheless, they are both outstanding clay players, with different interpretations: Zverev exploits the slow, high bounces to stand behind the baseline and hit hard, while Tsitsipas also enjoys a little more time on his one-hander, but to open more angles and dictate with tight-angled, loopy strikes – given Madrid’s faster conditions, he also integrated his surgical one-two serve&forehand combos into his game, with great proficiency. As for their defence, their slender frame makes them cover a lot more ground than their height should allow, with Tsitsipas being a little more flexible, as he finds himself on the back foot a little more often, not possessing the same kind of power.
The first game was a wasted opportunity for the Greek, for Zverev couldn’t win a single rally, clinging to his first murderous first serve. The German initially tried to exchange down the middle, but his opponent’s longer lever on the backhand (and his fresher legs, probably from playing so much that he’s match-ready straight away) often pushed him to the corners, and he was lucky not to concede early, especially given his two backhands plunged into the net, something that had last happened to him in the crib.
However, in the next game a more familiar pattern developed, with Tsitsipas paddling from the back wall behind Sascha’s heavy blows, and having to rely on quick combinations to survive – his inside-in was devastating. The eighth seed chose to not give much rhythm to his opponent, frequently taking the net (with great results) and hitting a couple of drop shots to exploit Zverev’s position. The German tried to take the net as well, but found himself out of his depth, winning just five net point out ten in the first set.
The set then proceeded quickly, as Zverev started to serve harder and harder, with only a couple of hiccups in the form of one break opportunity each, until, on 5-5, Tsitsipas managed to squeeze himself into a door left slightly ajar: his great merit was to force himself to stand forward on cannon balls, and to keep the return in play even when he mishit it, especially on the backhand side, a circumstance too frequent to be chanceful. Zverev’s uncertainty with weightless balls and high-bouncing shots to his Western forehand did the rest, as Tsitsipas held comfrotably to take the lead, winning 81% of points behind his first serve, and collecting loads of benefits from the ad-court slice.
The second set initially followed the pattern of its predecessor. Zverev was now serving at last year’s level, but couldn’t seem to break. However, he was clearly looking for a way to get himself going, aware of the negative omens a repetition of the first set. He began by literally bulls-eyeing Tsitsipas in the fourth game, shooting a bullety backhand passing shot at the figure; the Greek literally shielded himself, scoring on the ensuing volley, as the old tensions re-emerged. However, Sascha had strung the right chord of self-conviction, and only needed another highlight moment to go on a run, which came at 4-3, 40-15: as he approached the net with his forehand, he forced Tsitsipas to hit a weak passing shot, retorting with a decent forehand half-volley. Tsitsipas sprinted forward and managed to hit a lob. Zverev then could have run around the short ball, but elected for a very hard tweener. Tsitsipas parried, having stayed forward, but the German saw a highway, and hit a truck of a forehand passing shot down the line.
Never had a swing in momentum felt so clear, as Tsitsipas felt the blow to the chin, powerlessly witnessing the switching allegiance of a till then benign crowd. He committed two trivial mistakes and lost his serve, and the set, to love. Zverev seemed spirited, in a pure moment of kleos worthy of the Iliad, and closed the set emphatically with his previous bane, a tight-angled cross-court forehand winner, scoring eight points in a row.
However, Tsitsipas is a guy who would win an ego contest with Donald Trump, and wasn’t intimidated, knowing that blood rushes don’t run on end, immediately holding to love to cool Zverev’s enthusiasm. The defending champion was still flying high though, and responded with a love hold of his own, before fetching three break points in the third game.
However, in streaky battles momentum gives and momentum takes. So, when Tsitsipas saved the three break opportunities, the wind palpably switched sides. Zverev was voided of all will, and committed two double faults and a bad forehand mistake, surrendering his serve, and the match.
It ended as it began: with a demoralized Zverev having to rely on his serve to score, and Tsitsipas playing better in most regards. Sascha saved a match point, but ultimately had to give in on another precise Greek approach, abdicating after 2 hours and 11 minutes. Tsitsipas finished the match flying, and will try to bring this attitude against his personal boogeyman, Rafa Nadal, in Saturday’s final match.
R. Nadal (Spa, 2) d. S. Wawrinka (Swi, 34) 6-1 6-2
And Nadal will be waiting for him, after having quickly won against Stan Wawrinka, in what was a major disappointment. The Spaniard hadn’t looked impervious from the baseline, while Stanimal had looked more and more like his old self.
However, it all solved very quickly, as Nadal kept letting his sparring partner make his own mistakes, aware of the pressure he was feeling for playing against such a defender, instigating his forehand in particular, and served exceedingly well – 91% of points on his second serve, Isnerian numbers.
Wawrinka opened the second set as he finished the first, under siege, conceding two break points in the third game. He initially (temporarily) calmed down, placed the serve rather than try to over-hit it, and injected more spin in his strokes – it was a palliative, but it was an attempt to steer the ship, at least. He saved himself in that game, but conceded three more break points immediately afterwards. Nadal thankfully took the chance, and he felt at liberty to extend the rallies, winning 37 out 49 points over five shots, and holding comfortably to finish in an hour and eight minutes.
Despite its low competitiveness, this was a milestone win for Nadal, who reached his 70th Masters 1000 semi-finals, although it’s unlikely that he’ll dwell too much on this – he’s not a man who plays for semi-finals, especially in Spain, especially on clay.