Dominic Thiem arrived in Madrid with the sides of his hair almost shaved off. By the end of the final on Sunday, he had nearly pulled out what was left on top of his head.
The 24-year-old Austrian, who has yet to win a Masters 1000 title, had looked unstoppable in his previous two rounds. In the quarters, Thiem had handed Rafael Nadal his first loss on clay in a year, and he had followed that up with his first win in seven meetings over Kevin Anderson. Coming into the final, Thiem had beaten his opponent, Alexander Zverev, in four of their five matches. This had all the makings of a breakthrough week for a player who has been tagged—rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly, relevantly or irrelevantly—as the possible successor to Rafa at Roland Garros.
And then Thiem stopped himself. In the first game of the final, before much of the crowd had settled into their seats, he made three unforced errors and was broken. That was essentially the first set, because Zverev hadn’t been challenged on his serve all week, and he wouldn’t be in his 6-4, 6-4 win today.
But Thiem went about making it much easier for his opponent than necessary. He stood 15 feet behind the baseline to return serve, giving Zverev a chance to start every rally with an overwhelming court-position advantage. Once he worked himself into the points, Thiem seemed confused about what he wanted to do. Against Nadal, he ripped every backhand in sight with topspin, and forced his way forward as soon as possible. Against Zverev, he chipped his backhand much more often and spent much of his time roaming the deep backcourt, just trying to stay in the points. Despite having the advantage in their head-to-head, Thiem played as if he had no idea what he wanted to do against his younger opponent.
“I just couldn’t maintain my level from the match against Rafa and the match yesterday against Anderson,” Thiem said. “That was the problem today. In general, I was not playing good enough. He was not serving better than Anderson yesterday; I had many returns on the racquet, but just didn’t make them, or played it too easy back for him. He was immediately in the offense. All in all, it was just a bad match from me.”
Thiem said the overall level from both players had been “average,” and it’s true, I thought this was one result that was more about what the loser didn’t do, than what the winner did do. Zverev took what Thiem gave him, which was a lot. He broke at the start of each set, and never gave Thiem a sense that he was in the match. Faced with his one moment of danger, down 0-30 at 5-4 in the first set, he fired off five service winners to hold.
Zverev’s level was exactly as high as it needed to be. What’s more important, and impressive, is the performance that the 21-year-old has put on for the last two weeks, in Munich and Madrid. During that time, he has won two straight clay-court titles, nine straight matches, and 16 straight sets; in Madrid, he didn’t face a break point all week. At 6’6”, Zverev can grind like any dirt-baller, but he can also serve his way out of trouble. Against Thiem, he never looked rushed or pressured or forced to do anything extra.
“I just feel confident and comfortable right now,” Zverev said. “Obviously I didn’t get broken one time [this week]. I don’t think I faced break points in the whole tournament. For me, this is an amazing stat to know in the back of my mind...All in all, I’m just really happy with how I played, that I could win my third Masters.”
In the jockeying for post-Rafa pole position on clay, this match might go down as the moment that Zverev passed Thiem—for now, despite the Austrian’s win over Nadal this week, the German has his nose in front. In the past, I’ve wondered whether Zverev was too content to grind; the fact that both of his ground strokes are so solid and reliable seemed to make him unwilling to take risks or be overly aggressive. This week we saw the upside of that safety-first style. Zverev’s height and reach, and his ability to attack equally well with his forehand and backhand, allowed him to stay in his comfort zone at all times. This was power-baseline tennis played with machine-like order and effectiveness.
Thiem looked unstoppable, until Zverev stopped him. Which player can stop Zverev this spring? There may only be one.
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