“Being a good match player,” Andy Murray toldSky Sports after his 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 win over Dominic Thiem in Miami on Wednesday, “is understanding when to go for your shots and when to back off a little bit.”

Murray should know. Earlier this week, he passed the 500-victory mark for his career; most of the other men ahead of him on that list have ended up in tennis’s Hall of Fame. But when it came to win 501 today, Murray could have taken a step backward with his analysis. After all, before you can learn to understand when to go for your shots, and when to back off a little bit, you need to have the ability to do those both of those things. This, as Murray showed today, is a big part of the difference between his cohorts at the top of the rankings, and the hundreds of men on tour trying, for the most part futilely, to catch them.

You could see that difference slowly become clear over the course of Murray’s win over Thiem. The 21-year-old Austrian dominated early. Serve, court positioning, pace of shot, ball-striking, body language: He had the advantage in every category. He broke Murray at 2-1, held with a 130-m.p.h. serve for 5-2, and saved a break point at 5-3 with a brilliant stab backhand volley. From the easy power of his ground strokes to his surprising touch at net, Thiem, who just switched to a Babolat racquet this year, put together perhaps the most complete set of tennis we’ve seen from an ATP up-and-comer against a top player this season. It appeared, for a minute or two, that Murray might suffer the same ignominious fate he had suffered against another youngster, Borna Coric, in Dubai in February.

It still looked that way when Thiem held serve at love for 4-4 in the second set. But just as Murray appeared to be teetering, he used his serve to right himself again. He held for 5-4 with an ace and a service winner. Thiem’s momentum had been stopped dead in its tracks. He would win just one more game.

Murray credited his improved serving and returning, and his ability to push Thiem off the baseline, as keys to his win. Experience doesn’t always pay dividends in tennis—we saw an example of that in Venus Williams’s nervy loss to Carla Suarez Navarro on Tuesday night—but Murray vs. Thiem was a classic case of a player in his prime elevating himself above a player whose talent, while obvious, is still raw.


Thiem, Player

Thiem, Player

Murray cited Thiem’s power as the most dangerous element of his game, and the Austrian is probably the best pure ball-striker of the younger set. The most crucial shot of the last 10 years on the ATP side has been the mid-court forehand: Do you have the pace and spin to put it away with ease, like Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer? Thiem does; his forehand is a thing of vicious beauty. It also doesn’t hurt to have a gun serve to get you out of trouble. Thiem has one of those as well.

More celebrated is Thiem’s one-handed backhand. It doesn’t take long to see why. His motion is sleekly whip-like, and he went toe-to-toe with Murray’s backhand today. Using one hand instead of two also helps Thiem on his backhand volley.

But there are trade-offs to this shot. As much as many of us love to watch an elegant one-hander, it has its drawbacks. It’s tough to defend with; it’s tough to hit above the shoulder; it’s tough to take the ball on the rise with it; and it’s tough to blast back a big first serve with it. Maybe that’s why Thiem won just 18 percent of points on Murray’s first serve, and 39 percent on his second serve (Murray, by contrast, won 56 percent of Thiem’s second-serve points).

Murray, with his two-hander, was more comfortable staying in long rallies than Thiem, and that goes a long way on a fairly slow hard court like the one in Miami. It used to be that the one-hander gave players more versatility; they had more reach, they could use the slice, and they were better equipped, grip-wise, for the backhand volley. All of that is still true, but in the modern baseline game, the two-hander offers its own flexibility, in the form of better returns and stouter defense. You can’t soar with two hands the way you can with one, but you can dig in. That’s what Murray did today. It's not a coincidence that only two of the current ATP Top 10, Federer and Stan Wawrinka, use one-handed backhands, and they're each at least 30 years old.

This isn’t to say that Thiem and his tennis-pro parents made a mistake when they switched him from two hands to one a few years ago. It was his youth, not that shot, that did him in on Wednesday. Instead of bearing down early in the second set, when he knew Murray would make a run, Thiem let up. He also double-faulted five times and wilted in the heat in the third set.

In the self-analyses that he posts on Facebook after many of his matches, Thiem invariably talks about his lapses in concentration, his “carelessness” at certain stages. He’s had more than a few of those lapses so far this season. Coming to Miami, Thiem’s record was just 3-6, and for the moment he has been passed in the Next Great Player sweepstakes by Nick Kyrgios and Borna Coric. But Thiem has the purest and most explosive game of any of them, and while he's ranked just 52 now, I think the Top 10 is in his future eventually.

There’s being a great hitter, a great ball-striker, and a great talent; then, as Murray says, there’s being a great match player. It’s only the last one that counts, and hopefully Thiem learned a thing or two about what it takes to become one on Wednesday.