Thiem doesn't blink in semifinal serving showdown with Raonic

Thiem doesn't blink in semifinal serving showdown with Raonic

One of the game's best clay-court players was never broken on Saturday, and will go for the biggest title of his career on Sunday, against Roger Federer.

Dominic Thiem edged Milos Raonic in three grueling sets on Saturday, 7-6 (3), 6-7 (3), 6-4, to reach the BNP Paribas Open final, where he’ll try to beat Roger Federer and lift his first ATP Masters 1000 title.

Federer advanced to the final after Rafael Nadal withdrew prior to their semifinal with a knee injury.

The first two sets of the day's only completed semifinal were all about the tiebreaks: Thiem and Raonic held all 24 service games between them, with only a single break point (Thiem, at 2-1 in the second set).

Momentum in the first set tie-break swung towards Thiem right away, as Raonic double faulted on the first point. The Austrian quickly built a 5-1 lead, closing it out four points later.

In the second-set tiebreak, Thiem led 3-2, but Raonic won five points in a row to send the match to a third.

The match's first break finally came at 2-2 of the decider, for Thiem. It was just a blip in the established pattern, as both men held out from there, giving the 25-year-old the victory after two hours and 31 minutes, his first win in three career meetings against Raonic.

“It’s a big relief, of course. I had trouble serving it out,” Thiem said. “But it was great fun to play today. His serve is unreal—it’s really tough to return. And two tiebreaks, anything could have happened.

“Luckily I got the deciding break in the third.”

Incredibly, Thiem hit just nine unforced errors in the match, to go with his 25 winners (10 off the forehand, nine off the backhand and six off the serve). Raonic had 58 winners to 35 unforced errors for a great ratio of his own.

The Austrian is now a win away from the biggest title of his career; his biggest titles to date being a pair of 500-level titles at Acapulco in 2016 (on hard courts) and Rio de Janeiro in 2017 (on clay). This will be his third career Masters 1000 final, having finished runner-up at the clay court event in Madrid the last two years, to Nadal in 2017 and in 2018 to Alexander Zverev.

“It’s always something special to play Roger and also something special to compete in Masters 1000 finals. It’s only my third one,” Thiem told ATPTour.com. “I have pretty bad stats in the finals, so I know it’s going to be very tough, but at the same time, I will give everything to hopefully win my first one.”

Nadal, who was visibly struggling with his knee during his quarterfinal win over Karen Khachanov on Friday, announced his withdrawal as the Thiem-Raonic semifinal match was getting underway.

“When I got back from the practice court, Rafa texted me saying he won’t be able to do it,” Federer said. “The first reaction was one of disappointment - for both of us, for the fans, and for the match not to happen. Then the second reaction was, ‘Okay, what do we do now?’ Then the third one is, ‘How do we prepare for tomorrow?’ Because I am in the finals with a chance to win this big tournament.”

“As I said yesterday after the match, I felt that something happened in the knee, and it was not the moment to talk about that because there was still 24 hours before the semifinal, and I wanted to try my best to be competitive today,” he said. “I warmed up today in the morning and I felt that my knee was not good enough to compete at the level I need to compete, to play the semifinals of this event.”

Federer, meanwhile, is now a win away from history: no player, male or female, has won Indian Wells six times. Federer and Novak Djokovic are tied for the record five. The Swiss lifted this trophy in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2012 and 2017. He’ll also be going for his 28th career Masters 1000 title and 101st career ATP title.

Federer and Thiem are tied in their head-to-head, 2-2. They played three times in 2016, with Federer winning their first meeting in Brisbane (hard) and Thiem winning back-to-back meetings in Rome (clay) and Stuttgart (grass). Federer won their last meeting at the 2018 ATP Finals, on hard.