Dominic Thiem is the first player to win a place in this year’s semis of the Nitto ATP Finals being currently played out at The O2, by scoring a huge victory over Rafa Nadal for his second ‘Group London 2020’ triumph and then watching Stefanos Tsitsipas, the reigning champion, overcome debutant Andrey Rublev in the evening match.
t was definitely one of the best matches I have played in my career. It came close to the second group match last year against Djokovic. We both played great tennis. Then, matches like this can happen. Dominic Thiem
Those two results means that the Nadal versus Tsitsipas clash on Thursday will decide the other semi-finalist from the group while the Thiem-Rublev encounter to complete their round-robin stage, will have no bearing on the final four results.
Thiem has become a pain in the butt as far as Nadal is concerned. This defeat was the third the Austrian had inflicted on the Spaniard in four meetings, including a four-set quarter-final win at the Australian Open last January when he required three tie-breaks to claim his victory.
It was tie-breaks again which proved Nadal’s downfall at the empty O2 Arena. This time he lost 7-6(7) 7-6(4) capitulating on the fifth match point in what was an exceptionally high-quality match, more befitting a final rather than a group match.
But then that can be expected when the world numbers two and three clash on the field of play.
“If I want to look for mistakes or for things I didn’t do right, I think I wouldn’t find many,” a satisfied Thiem said following the two hour and 24-minute match.
Nadal, who has never won the prestigious end-of-season event in nine previous appearances, remains positive that he can still finally claim overall victory on Sunday.
“He created damage on me with his general game and I created damage on his as well,” the 34-year-old word number two said.
“He wasn’t the better player and I wasn’t the better player. He deserves the victory because he played the big points very well. It was a great match of tennis.
“It was decided by small details. He played an amazing match and I played well too. My feeling is not negative.”
Thiem, described his performance as one of the best of his career.
He won the first set after coming from 5-2 down in the tiebreaker, saving two set points in the process and clinching the tie-breaker with two inside-out forehands on the last three points, one to save a set point against him and the second to clinch the set.
“It was a great match from the first to the last point,” Thiem said, “but actually I was pretty lucky to get that first set.”
In the second Nadal made a breakthrough when he captured the Thiem serve only to immediately hand the advantage back and then was forced to save three match points when serving at 5-4 down.
He won five straight points in that game, with one including a lob from a ‘tweener’ that Thiem just managed to get back before Nadal powered a backhand down the line.
In the inevitable second set tie-break, Thiem powered his way into 6-3 lead but failed to convert his fourth match point only to make amends on the next point by forcing Nadal send a backhand wide to concede what will be remembered as one of the most exciting matches played out at The O2.
“I hope people enjoyed the match back home,” Thiem said, “and forgot a little bit for a few hours the tough times we are living through right now.”
Reflecting on the match itself he added: “I think it was a great match from the first to the last point.
“I was pretty lucky to get that first set. I was 2/5 down in the tie-break. Against Rafa, it is nice to win the first set, but he is still there 100 per cent from the first to the last point.
“I knew that maybe I had a slight advantage when I won the first set, but I still had to stay super focused.”
Thiem continued: “The match was at a very high level with all strokes.
“I am very happy with the way I served, because most of the time when I get the first serve in, I am on the offence and I have a good percentage to win the point.
“When I was in difficult situations like the first-set tie-break… the serve helped me out a lot. I think it is maybe the most important stroke in indoor tennis. I am very happy that it worked well.”
The 27-year-old the concluded: “It was definitely one of the best matches I have played in my career. It came close to the second group match last year against Djokovic. We both played great tennis. Then, matches like this can happen.”
It would be difficult for any match to follow that in intensity and drama but the Tsitsipas Rublev encounter came close, though it didn’t come alight until well into the second set when it turned into a slugfest, the first having been pocketed by the defending champion in just 19-minutes.
It lasted just under two hours with the Greek keeping his hopes alive for a successful defence of his title, 6-1 4-6 7-6(6).
In that deciding set tie-breaker, Rublev could have notched up his first win at the ATP Finals only to double fault on matchpoint allowing Tsitsipas to level at 6-6 and two points later, claim his first win at this year’s event.
“Even though it was a win, I still feel like there’s plenty to improve and get better at,” Tsitsipas admitted.
For both Tsitsipas and Nadal their meeting on Thursday should prove a more than intriguing match with so much at stake for both of them.