What’s the simplest way to beat a counterpuncher? Turn him into a puncher. What’s the simplest way to beat a tall opponent? Force him to get low and run.
On Sunday in Barcelona, Dominic Thiem had to make both of those tactics work for him at once.
That’s because Thiem was facing Daniil Medvedev, a 23-year-old Russian who is that rarest of tennis birds: A very tall player—in his case, 6’6”—who likes to grind and defend and lengthen points, rather than kill them off quickly. He’s happiest when he can set up camp behind the baseline, send his two-handed backhand flat and deep into the corners, and use his opponent’s pace against him. Coming into Sunday’s final, it was a game plan that had earned Medvedev more wins than anyone else on the ATP tour in 2019, and had made him a surprising new threat on clay.
After three games against Thiem, it looked as if Medvedev’s plan was going to help him win his most significant title yet. The Austrian took the biggest cuts he could take—as is his wont—only to see the Russian redirect the ball expertly. Fifteen minutes in, Medvedev was up 3-0, and Thiem looked like he might be in the midst of a major letdown after his win over Rafael Nadal the previous day.
But as he showed against Rafa, this is not the one-dimensional, slug-it-till-you-make-it Thiem of old. Down 0-3, Thiem did the smart thing: He went to his low backhand slice, changed speeds and locations constantly, and finished points with drop shots. Medvedev was baffled by the shift. He was forced to sprint forward, to bend, to hit up on the ball, to guard for both the drop shot and the deep drive at the same time, and to create his own pace with his weakest shot, his forehand. Thiem won 12 of the last 13 games.
“I tried my best, but Dominic was too good,” Medvedev said. “At one point today, even just getting a point off him was a real achievement.”
Maybe Medvedev, who reached the semifinals in Monte Carlo, was a victim of his own success. This was his 10th match in 13 days, and he had the trainer out to work on his shoulder at the end of the first set. Medvedev has made a lot of progress this year, and especially this month, but in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, he hit a wall: Last week he led Dusan Lajovic 5-1 in the first set and lost 7-5, 6-1; on Sunday, he led Thiem 3-0 and won just one more game. At his size, with his labor-intensive style, Medvedev may always hit a wall at some point on clay. The next step will be to find a way over it.
Has Thiem found a way over his own clay-court wall? The man standing in his way has typically been Nadal; Rafa defeated Thiem in straight sets at each of the last two French Opens. But Thiem was masterful in turning the tables on the Spaniard on Saturday. He beat Rafa, who wasn’t playing all that badly, with pace, with touch, with defense. And he showed that same maturity and versatility in the final.
“Winning this means a lot to me because it’s such a traditional and special tournament,” Thiem said. “Only great players have won here.”
“A title like this gives you a lot of confidence, so I’ll be in a good mood going into Madrid.”
Thiem becomes only the second ATP player, after Roger Federer, to win his two titles in 2019. That development is to be expected as we approach the year’s second major. Over the next month, the favorites for the French Open will make themselves apparent. Thiem, it’s already clear, is going to be one of them.
Will Petra Kvitova join Thiem as a French Open favorite next month? Last year, she came to Paris as a popular dark horse. She had won two straight titles, in Prague and Madrid, and had been impressive enough over the first half of the season to make many of us forget that she hadn’t reached a quarterfinal in Roland Garros in six years. Historically, Kvitova’s impatiently powerful game hasn’t translated easily to the slow surface; unfortunately for her and her many fans, history prevailed again when she went out in the third round in Paris to Anett Kontaveit.
All of which added an extra layer of intrigue to Kvitova’s rematch with Kontaveit in the Porsche Grand Prix final on Sunday. The Czech was playing her first event on dirt in 2019, and while the slightly quicker version of it in Stuttgart should be to her liking, this was an event she had never won before—last year she lost her opener to Angelique Kerber in straight sets. Over the course of the week, though, Kvitova had worked her way through three-setters against two quality opponents, Anastasia Sevastova and Kiki Bertens. On Sunday, she faced two more tests: Could she conquer Kontaveit, who had also beaten her in Brisbane at the start of 2019? And could she come through in a final? Kvitova had lost her last two, at the Australian Open and in Dubai.
Kvitova was obviously ready for that dual challenge. Everyone in the building, including her opponent, knew she would come out firing, but her early aggression seemed to take even Kontaveit by surprise.
“It’s impossible,” Kontaveit told her coach, Nigel Sears, when he made an on-court visit during the first set.
It was “impossible,” she seemed to be saying, to handle Kvitova’s pace. Sears agreed: “She has a massive strike,” he said.
To counter it, he told her to make Kvitova work, and take her chances to be aggressive when she could. Kontaveit listened, and did everything she could to stem the tide for the next set and a half. She read Kvitova’s serve and hit winning returns off it; she improved her court position and punished short balls; she clung to her own serve, and, at 5-4, reached set point twice on Kvitova’s serve. But a backhand winner from the Czech on the second of those points sent her flying into the tiebreaker, where she played her cleanest tennis of the day to seal a 6-3, 7-6 (2) win.
“I played Anett a few tiebreakers in the past, and I almost lost all of them, which wasn’t really nice going into the tiebreak,” Kvitova said. “I think I was pretty patient and I was just there and trying not to really be that hectic, as probably like I was before.”
Kvitova’s control in the tiebreaker made the difference. She didn’t make an error until the score was 6-2, and she won points without taking big risks. Looking ahead, can she stay “pretty patient,” the way she did down the stretch today, and wait for her chances? Shot selection will be key for her on clay, because she has the natural power to play within herself and still dictate rallies.
For now, like Thiem, Kvitova has struck a rare blow against pro-tour parity. With her victory, she became the first woman to win two tournaments in 2019. It’s too early to make her an early favorite at the French Open—first she has titles to defend in Prague and Madrid. But Kvitova has planted an early flag in the dirt.