How Thiem brought out the big guns against Djokovic, and stuck to them

How Thiem brought out the big guns against Djokovic, and stuck to them

The Austrian consolidated his win over Federer by rallying past the Serb on Tuesday at the ATP Finals, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (5).

For two hours and 47 minutes on Tuesday, Dominic Thiem looked like a man walking a tightrope as he tried to negotiate his way past Novak Djokovic.

Should he step in and go for broke with his inside-out forehand? Should he rifle his backhand down the line with no margin for error? Should he stand his ground on the baseline, rush the net, or even serve and volley? These were all risky tactics, and not ones that come naturally to a man who has had his greatest success grinding out wars of attrition on clay. But Thiem knew there was no other way that he was going to beat Djokovic—an ultra-focused and motivated Djokovic—on a quick indoor hard court.

To Thiem’s credit, he never backed off, never played it safe, and never seemed to second-guess himself. He has made a commitment to playing more aggressively and decisively on hard courts this season, and he stuck to that plan on Tuesday. He stuck to it even after losing a tight and well-played first set in a tiebreaker. He stuck to it even after giving back two service breaks in the third set. He stuck to it even after going down 1-4 in the final-set tiebreaker. Thiem would hit 51 winners over the course of three sets, and force Djokovic to track down countless more that would have been winners against anyone else. Finally, in the end, it was enough, and Thiem had perhaps his most satisfying win since…well, since the last time he played Djokovic, at Roland Garros five months ago.

“This was really one of those special matches that I practiced all my life for,” Thiem said after his 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (5) win.

“It was probably the best match I’ve ever played.”

Djokovic won just two fewer points than Thiem (108 to 110) and seemed to have the match locked up—or, in his case, locked down—when he showed off some of his most scintillating defense of the night to take a 4-1 lead in the deciding tiebreaker. But did Djokovic get a little too defensive from that point on, believing that Thiem would continue to miss?

It would have been a logical tactic. Djokovic has won a series of tiebreakers this year—including three in the Wimbledon final against Roger Federer—by eliminating all of his unforced errors, and he didn’t make any in this one, either. Serving for the match at 6-5 in the third set, a nervous Thiem had missed four routine balls, and by the middle of the tiebreaker he seemed to be reeling.

Unfortunately for Djokovic, Thiem gathered himself just in time and finished with a flurry of winners. Thiem won a tiebreaker against Djokovic the only way he could, the only way anyone could: By hitting the ball past him.

“Probably Novak is the best player in the world right now, so I had to do something outstanding, something unusual, and that’s what I did,” Thiem said. “I mean, I was hitting really, really hard.”

“I thought he deserved to win,” Djokovic said. “He just played very courageous tennis and just smacking the ball. He went for broke…I just have to put my hat down and congratulate him, because he just played a great match.”

 

In a season littered with great matches, Thiem-Djokovic takes its place near the top. The points were long, but never less than full-throttle; each of the tiebreakers began with a 22-shot rally. There was a contrast in styles, between Thiem’s high-octane offense, and Djokovic’s scrambling, lunging, dextrous defense. One man was reaching for the year-end No. 1 ranking, while the other was trying to advance to the semifinals at this event for the first time. Djokovic did all he could to hold off his opponent’s onslaught, but Thiem took the risks, and he was rewarded for them: He was four for four on break points, while Djokovic was just three for nine. Most important, Thiem won six of the last seven points, virtually all of them with aggressive shots.

Thiem called this match a “real classic” afterward. He has lost a few of those to the Big 3 over the years, but this week he has wins over both Federer and Djokovic. Getting past them is still a tightrope walk, but Thiem has learned how not to fall off: He has to bring out the big guns, and stick to them.