One day you’re saving two match points and coming back to win; the next day your opponent is doing the same to you.
That’s what life was like for Roger Federer this week, when he returned to Madrid for the first time in four years, and to a clay court for the first time in three. While the Maestro exited in the quarterfinals, he delivered—as a player and an entertainer—everything that a long-suffering Spanish Fed fan could have hoped to see.
On Thursday, Federer successfully walked a serve-and-volley tightrope past Gael Monfils, charging his way forward whenever possible and brushing aside a pair of match points along the way. On Friday, though, it was Federer’s turn to watch as Dominic Thiem pulled the same rabbit out of his own hat, when he came back from a set down and saved two match points in a 3-6, 7-6 (11), 6-4 win.
But Thiem-Federer wasn’t just about a great comeback, or a squandered opportunity. This was one of the year’s best contests, a blend of chess and boxing in which a young slugger and a versatile veteran traded punches and matched tactical wits for more than two hours. In the end, the young slugger came out an inch ahead—literally: that’s how much of the line Thiem’s winning forehand return caught when he broke Federer at 4-4 in the third set.
Much like their last meeting, in the Indian Wells final, this one pitted Federer’s superior variety against Thiem’s superior slugging. Today, Federer did everything he could to contain to disrupt Thiem’s rhythm and contain his power. He followed his serve to net. He altered his return positions. He threw in short slices and drop shots on some points, and then stepped back and hit high and heavy topspin on others. He did whatever he could to keep Thiem boxed in, and it was nearly enough.
Federer won the first set, and in the second he saved five break points to reach a tiebreaker. In the breaker, Federer saved three set points—one with the bravest and most brilliant of drop shots—before earning his first match point, at 8-7. From that point on, though, it would be Thiem who would come up with the match-deciding responses.
On his first match point, Federer attempted to attack rather than disrupt. He stepped forward on a Thiem kick serve, drove a backhand return down the line, and missed by a foot. Shortly after, at 10-9, Federer had another look at a match point, and another look at a backhand return. This time, instead of trying a short chip, he floated a slice deep and down the middle. Thiem, ready for it, cranked an inside-out forehand that Federer couldn’t handle. Then, at 11-11, Federer went back to a play that had worked for him against Monfils. He hit a high kick down the T and sprinted in behind it; again, Thiem was ready. He scrambled around for a forehand, and knocked off a winning pass. Federer had gone to the serve-and-volley well once too often, and a minute later Thiem had leveled the match.
In the third set, it was Federer’s turn to stage a comeback. Down a break at 3-4, he stepped up to the baseline and smacked back three darting returns off Thiem’s first serves to break for 4-4. In the next game, though, Thiem answered with his own set of brilliant returns and forehands to reach 0-40 on Federer’s serve. Federer won the next two points, but couldn’t win the third. Thiem’s forehand return sailed past Federer’s head and landed on the outside of the sideline for the decisive break.
Youthful power had nosed out veteran versatility in a match of inches. The result of their clash hung in the balance until the very end, and gave us one of the season’s most satisfying contests. It was good to have Federer back on dirt, and it was good to see Thiem rise to his challenge.