Two great matches were played on Saturday, lasting well over two hours of twists-laden fight. World No.1 Novak Djokovic beat man of the hour Dominic Thiem, while Stefanos Tsitsipas stunned four-time champion Rafa Nadal to book his second Masters 1000 final.
Rafa is a fighter. He doesn't give you free points. You've got to fight and give your best on every single point. Stefanos Tsitsipas, following his victory on Saturday night.
Tsitsipas (Gre, 9, seeded 8th) d. R. Nadal (Spa, 2) 6-4 2-6 6-3
It seems appropriate to start with the biggest headline, although the match was actually the last one of the day. Stefanos Tsitsipas, the long-haired Greek, surprisingly beat the clay GOAT Rafa Nadal in two hours and 34 minutes, prolonging his tournament wins drought (he hasn’t won one since the Canada Open last August, when he beat Tsitsipas himself), and providing another coming-of-age moment for himself and for the NextGen as a whole. Moreover, he did that against his absolute bane, having already defeated both Federer and Djokovic, but having also taken three heavy defeats from the Spaniard.
After the most recent, a 6-4, 6-2, 6-0 coventrisation in the Australian Open semi-finals in January, Tsitsipas had looked extremely discomforted in the ensuing press conference, saying that he had no idea how Federer might have beaten Nadal in the past, since he tried to copy the Swiss’s plan to the minutest detail and got rammed so thoroughly.
Now, aside from his customary lack of humility in the self-comparison, and aside from the many technical differences between the two that prevent a correct application of the same strategy (for one, Tsitsipas doesn’t possess the same anticipation, the key to Federer’s backhand success against Nadal’s banana shots), this statement gives us a fair idea of how aware he was of the necessity to come up with a different plan, which he did, and brilliantly so.
This time, he played a lot more to Nadal’s weaknesses, using deep, high backhand cross-courts to get back into play when he was pushed back by Rafa’s inside-in forehands with hard, combining them with flat forehands to his opponent’s body, knowing full well that Nadal’s forehand needs some more fractions to swing fully and wreak havoc. Moreover, the Greek’s return this week has moved to a different plateau, having always been the worst part of his game, whereas in Madrid he has shown an efficient backhand parry against cannon balls, and even a few fully impacted ones. Add to all of this how well-centred he was in prolonged rallies during which the two often moonballed at each other to provoke a mistake, and it’s easy to see how, in a slightly windy evening atmosphere, finally reaped the results he coveted: Nadal had only been broken once in three matches (when he served for the match against Auger-Aliassime), but surrendered his serve three times in the first set alone.
However, Nadal wasn’t (has never been) a designated victim, and fought back every time, counter-breaking in the second game with his improved backhand, by now a bona fide world class shot, which is very hard to read, and often wrong-footed Tsitsipas on his right side. Most service games were very hard-fought, with Tsitsipas getting another break point in the third game, and Nadal going to deuce in the fourth.
Tsitsipas soon caught on with his foe’s gambit, and earned two further break points in seventh game because this time he expected the wrong-footing backhand. He stayed put, and seized control of the rally, finishing at the net, completing the job with another great return. He also seems to have developed another scrappy weapon, slam jumping with both knees bent to counter deep shots to his forehand.
Once again, though, Tsitsipas wasn’t able to defend his lead, perhaps due to some tension in playing against Nadal on clay (the Spaniard had more or less owned him in last year’s Barcelona final, gliding to a 6-2 6-1 win, and he indeed showed some nervousness by contesting several balls with the umpire), and suffered from not winning many free points on serve. Nadal sensed this, and kept many balls into play, letting him make his own mistakes for a 4-4 score – the amount of breaks was even more surprising if we consider that the two had very high percentages with the first serve in the set, 75% for Tsitsipas and 64% for Nadal.
However, this wasn’t Barcelona 2018, a master showing his young under-study how it’s done. This time the two really looked like equals, and Tsitsipas knew that if he’d broken twice, he could break again. His defence is unheard of in a 6ft4 specimen, and a great defensive lob brought him to 0-15 in the ninth game. Another high return elicited another mistake, and an inside-out forehand return winner gave him the chance to serve for the set.
The Zverev match had given many technical indications, one being the above mentioned backhand shield on fast serves, and the other being how often the Greek tries to be vertical by taking the net to score quick points, especially behind the slice serve from the deuce side, a tactic that can be very effective against a left-handed player like Nadal, since he will have to go for a backhand and will be pushed very wide. Tsitsipas often applied this reasoning, and used it to pull ahead in the tenth game, but Nadal came back at 30-30 thanks to an overhead mistake and a defensive lob followed by an exquisite backhand half-volley that avenged the previous one by Tsitsipas. A deflected forehand ended up wide, offering Nadal a new break opportunity, but Tsitsipas scored twice with his serve to gain a set point, on which he capitalised with a kick serve accompanied by a forehand attack and an easy volley, winning a set against Nadal on the eighth try.
The second set didn’t have much to say, as Tsitsipas was completely depleted after his previous efforts, while Nadal upped his aggression, hitting faster and flatter forehands, and eliciting many mishits from the eighth seed, who started missing a lot more with his inside-in forehand, looking tired every time he ran around the ball. The feeling was that Tsitsipas had been playing his best tennis ever, but that he couldn’t keep up that kind of level, as Nadal went on a killing spree of five consecutive games, from 2-2 in the second to 1-0 and two break points at 15-40 in the third.
However, in hindsight Tsitsipas might have been in control of his fitness, for he suddenly found his legs again, saved the break points, and got two for himself in the next game, cooling down Rafa with some backhand slices, previously unused in the match. Anyway, Nadal cancelled the opportunities by serving to the body, followed by an easy Tsitsipas hold for an even score at 2-2.
Just when the affair appeared to be tightening up again, Nadal was betrayed by his best shot, for, up 30-0, hit a forehand into the net with the Whole court opened up in front of him, surrendering the momentum to Tsitsipas, who rose to a break point, and won a tense rally to take the lead for the first time in ages.
Now exhaustion and endorphins mixed in creative ways, as another Tsitsipas mishit sunk him to a 15-40 deficit in the sixth game. However, the Greek saved the first by incessantly targeting the backhand of Nadal. Afterwards, his forehand suddenly burst to life: two great down the liners and a combination of shots allowed him to hold serve, 4-2, for the astonishment of the crowd.
It then reverted to the beginning of the match: Tsitsipas’s return came bouncing high at Nadal each and every time, and he defended with nails and teeth, giving him a break point with a cross-court backhand that just as much smudged the baseline. Then Nadal missed an easy volley and Tsitsipas rose to 5-2.
Nadal was furious, and cancelled one of the two breaks in a blur, but Tsitsipas’s defence proved stingy again. He got a match point thanks to the high cross-court backhand, but Nadal saved it with an anticipated backhand down the line following a mishit by both, then Tsitsipas earned another with a mesmerising inside-out winner worthy of Del Potro, but Nadal played two incredible touches near the net to save himself again. A second forehand down the line caught the tape and stayed on the Spaniard’s side, third match point, this time saved with a wide serve and a forehand drop shot winner, as Nadal was still afloat. Another easy volley miss gave Tsitsipas match point number four, and a missed backhand meant abdication after two hours and 34 minutes, despite Nadal actually winning four more points than his opponent.
Tsitsipas will contest his second Master 1000 final, again versus the top-ranked player in the world, going in with a little more confidence this time, and will try to win his third title of the season, while Nadal finds himself with no clay titles at this point of the season for just the second time since 2005. While he remains the favourite for the French Open, he will need to find his best form once more – his enemies are circling him.
Djokovic (Srb, 1) d. D. Thiem (Aut, 5) 7-6 (2) 7-6 (4)
Novak Djokovic finally appears to be back at his dictatorial best, beating Dominic Thiem in two tie-breaks in two hours and 22 minutes to reach his second final of 2019 after the Australian Open triumph.
The match was more of a classic clay encounter than the other semi-finals, pitting against each other two unabashed baseliners with seemingly infinite endurance, Djokovic a savant of control with his anticipated, deep, and angled groundstrokes, and Thiem with his relentless power hitting from behind the baseline. Many rallies went the distance, logorating shoes and joints, and testing every inch of the dusty surface.
Thiem, coming off an epic win over Federer, broke in the third game, returning well, then winning a rally on the backhand side, followed by a drop&passing forehand combination, finally hurting Djokovic with a combination of high trajectories followed by a low slice, eliciting a forehand unforced – while not extreme as Thiem’s, Nole’s grips can suffer against shots closer to the ground.
Thiem tried to move quickly to his left to dictate with his forehand, often serving and hitting to the body, to prevent Djokovic from opening his venomous angles, and often trying to shorten the rallies with quick combinations. However, a low percentage of first serves made him a potential prey for the Serbian’s shots: Djokovic returns most of the times, if not every single time, and sent the Sixth game to deuce with a Kevlar-ish defence, unsettling Thiem with down-the-line changes, eliciting a defensive slice, and hitting an inside-in winner. Another great defence, with a good counter drop shot, took him to break point, which he immediately took advantage of, behind a forehand unforced, to break back at 3-3.
On his serve, Djokovic often went out wide, to make Thiem run, initially not to great effect but ultimately proving himself right (his second serve rose from 38% early on to 53% by the end of the set), and kept his shots low and early, hurting Thiem’s grips on a much more regular basis than the Austrian did to him.
In the eighth game, Thiem finally got three unreturned serves, breathing a sigh of relief. The set proceeded a little more quickly, but in the ninth game Djokovic got a time violation, and tried to pin Thiem on the left diagonal, but the Dominator resisted and got to a double break point. The umpire then called a further time violation, meaning that Djokovic now had to hit a second serve, fuelling the tension, but the reigning world champion saved the first break chance with an incredible cross-court backhand, and then hit a winning wide first, before another winning serve to the T gave him the 5-4 lead.
After that, Thiem got to the tie-break with some luck: Djokovic sent a slice approach an inch long after Thiem had an indecision and hit a short ball. Then the Serbian missed an easy counter-drop shot, and set up the deciding game. Because of these mistakes, Djokovic was nervous early on, missing a forehand and hitting a ball into the advertising signs in disgust. However, Thiem lost two points on his serve, once again trying to get out of the rally with a bad drop shot. Djokovic couldn’t ask for more, and scored the 4-1 with an incredible defensive lob off of a reverse volley from Thiem. Another bad drop shot gave Djokovic a 5-1 lead (neither did great with that shot), before an unreturned serve game him the set after an hour and 5 minutes. Thiem didn’t appear very lucid in the tie-break, perhaps due to having had to play one more match, as Djokovic got a walk over following Cilic’s withdrawal on Friday.
In the second set, Djokovic kept moving Thiem around, while rallies abounded – Thiem actually won more of those over nine shots. The Austrian had break points in each of his first three return games, and managed to squeeze through on the fourth chance of the sixth game, as his depth combined with the high bounce hurt Djokovic as it had Federer – while stylistically very different, the two Immortals share an advanced court position. Thiem got a third chance following a deft short forehand, but the fourth one was the charm, as Nole betrayed some uncertainties on the forehand, not unusually.
However, the Serbian just switched gears, and hit three full, counter-punching returns to hard first serves, breaking right back, and breaking again in the eleventh game. However, as he savoured the win, Thiem summoned all he had left, and hit a few deep returns, before Djokovic incredibly double faulted for the first time on a break point, levelling the score at 6-6.
In the tie-break, a quick exchange of mini-breaks was followed by an endless rally on the backhand side, ending on a trivial Djokovic forehand mistake after several slices by Thiem, impacting at 2-2. However, Djokovic used a smart short backhand to hit a volley winner for a 4-3 lead, taking a decisive leap with a double fault of the Austrian. One more extended rally gave him two match points, but one was enough, as a backhand mishit gave him the win.
Thiem could only blame himself for his 3/10 on break points – Djokovic was 3/3, the usual, almost cybernetic, clinic. Ultimately, Djokovic’s aura of control prevailed, perhaps due to a fresher state of mind: when he’s dialled in, he can lose a ten-minutes-long game, he can double fault and be broken back while serving for the match, but after that, clean slate – as a matter of fact, after a third time violation, Djokovic synthesised this concept by hitting an ace with his second serve. To paraphrase David Foster Wallace, at his best Djokovic eliminates all lines of thought that aren’t in his favour. He will play one of the new prophets of the game next, Stafanos Tsitsipas, who beat him in their only previous meeting, in what might be a symbol of restauration or of further changing of the guard. Thiem found some consolation, however, as he’ll tie his best ranking of No.4 on Monday, and, more importantly, reached his maiden Masters 1000 doubles final later in the afternoon, with improbable partner Diego Schwartzman.