KEY BISCAYNE, Fla.—Can a match in which two players combine to double fault 13 times and make 36 more errors than winners still be considered must-see tennis? In the case of Novak Djokovic’s gritty, grouchy, anything-but-straightforward 6-3, 6-4 win here over Dominic Thiem, the answer was an emphatic yes. It began with a ripple of anticipation as the upstart mounted a challenge to the champion, and ended with the champion staving off the upstart by holding serve in an impossibly tense 14-minute final game.

You could argue that these two men have been the most consequential players of the ATP's 2016 season so far. Djokovic has won the Australian Open and Indian Wells, and sits at No. 1 in the year-long race to London; in that, he represents the continued authority of the Big Four. At the same time, Thiem has won two tournaments and risen to No. 4 in the race; more than anyone else, he represents a new generation that may finally give tennis fans an idea of what the sport’s future will look like.

On Tuesday they met for the first time since 2014. Over the course of nearly two hours of heavy hitting and heavier grunting in the stifling Florida humidity, we saw again what makes even a less-than-flawless Djokovic so tough to beat, and what makes Thiem, in many ways—but not yet in all ways—the heir apparent to his No. 1 throne. Much like Rafael Nadal’s win over Alexander Zverev two weeks ago in Indian Wells, this was a match in which a new generation pushed, only to see an older generation push back harder.

“It was a straight-set win,” a ragged but relieved Djokovic said afterward, “but it was far from easy.”

A Riveting Wreck

A Riveting Wreck

Advertising

Both players started tentatively. Djokovic double faulted twice in his opening service game, but Thiem immediately returned the favor and was broken. Soon, though, Thiem began to draw gasps from the audience with his hooking, full-swoop forehands, windmill one-handed backhands, 139-m.p.h. flat-bomb first serves and wickedly kicked second deliveries. Thiem's shots sounded louder and traveled through the court faster; everything he did came with something extra, some hint of the spectacular. Yet when Thiem walked to the sideline for the first changeover, he was down 0-3. He had done everything but win a game.

That’s because, like a pool shark who never forces himself to try a difficult shot, Djokovic doesn’t need to be spectacular. He missed more than his share of shots on Tuesday, but missing isn’t part of his game the way it is for shot-makers like Thiem who take bigger risks. Those swooping forehands the Austrian was hitting? Djokovic anticipated and returned them. Those windmill backhands? Djokovic made him hit one more as often as possible. And while Djokovic doesn’t own a 139-m.p.h. serve, his 119 ball down the T was there every time he needed it. By mixing speeds, Djokovic can make 119 feel 10 miles faster.

“I thought the first serve was really good today,” Djokovic said, “...I go for accuracy, precision, I pick my spots. I think that’s—in the long run, down the stretch, that’s what matters most, where you can actually get the most free points or an easier second shot. Serve is one of the elements in my game that I’ve worked on very hard [the] last couple of years, and it’s paying off.”

Djokovic faced more break points—14—than he ever had in a best-of-three-set match, yet he was broken just once. Four of those points came in the long, precarious final game. Here is where Thiem revealed both his inexperience and what he needs to add to his game. Three straight times he reached break point to make it 5-5. Three straight times it felt like now, finally, Djokovic had to crack. Three straight times Thiem grunted loudly, reached back for a down-the-line forehand and sent it long. Even a player with Thiem’s ball-striking skills can't beat Djokovic purely from the baseline.

Much like Roger Federer, as brilliant as Thiem’s one-handed backhand is, it will never be as solid or consistent as Djokovic’s two-hander. The advantage of the one-hander comes not at the baseline, but at the net; it makes it easier to approach and volley. When Federer beats Djokovic, he does it by attacking and finishing points at net; on Tuesday, Thiem—who is at his best on slow clay—stayed back even when he had the advantage in a rally. That’s an element he’s going to need to add to challenge the world No. 1 on hard courts.

A Riveting Wreck

A Riveting Wreck

“I just think I stayed tough when it was most needed,” Djokovic said later. “In the important moments I just tried to make him play, make him run. It’s kind of a gamble playing with him, whether you want to step in or try to make him play.”

But Djokovic didn't always play it safe. One of those important moments came when he served for the match and went down 0-15. Thiem grabbed the advantage in the next rally, but Djokovic chose that moment to gamble. Instead of making Thiem play, he sent a difficult backhand down the line. It skidded through for a winner; a challenge by Thiem revealed that the ball had caught the outside half of the sideline.

It was pretty spectacular, really.