“Dominic Thiem is getting better on hard courts,” has been one of the under-the-radar themes of 2019. He beat Roger Federer in the Indian Wells final in March, and this fall he won two more titles on the surface, in Beijing and Vienna. At 26, after a lifetime as a diehard dirt-baller, the Austrian seemed to have decided it was time to make some adjustments and branch out.
“After the US Open, I made a big step in the right direction, especially with my game on the hard courts, on the faster surfaces,” Thiem said in London this weekend. “I improved my volleys, my serve and returns.”
How could we confirm that this was a legitimate step forward for Thiem, one that could change the way we think of his game and his potential in the future? How could he put his hard-court game on our radar, rather than under it? A second win over Federer, on an indoor court, at the Nitto ATP Finals, would go a long way to stamping Thiem as a man for all surfaces (or at least more surfaces). That’s exactly what he delivered, 7-5, 7-5, in 100 minutes, on Sunday night in the 02 Arena.
It wasn’t the fact that Thiem beat Federer that was so memorable or impressive; he had a 4-2 record against him coming into the match, and he had beaten him in both of their previous meetings in 2019. It was the way Thiem played, from first point to last, that mattered.
Thiem has always been comfortable camping out far behind the baseline and trading heavy, high-arcing topspin bombs with his opponents. Against Federer on Sunday, he stood closer in, and never backed off. That’s a tricky, risky play for someone with long strokes and a one-handed backhand like his, and he paid the price with a few shanks.
But Thiem stuck with the plan. Instead of looping his forehand and rallying, he hit it early, into the corners, and with a sense of purpose on each ball—his average ground-stroke speed was 80 m.p.h. to Federer’s 75. On several key points, Thiem’s bravery was rewarded when he stood toe-to-toe in a baseline rally, until Federer finally blinked and committed an error.
Thiem has always been comfortable kicking his second serve into his opponent’s backhand side, especially against Federer. In the Indian Wells final, he hit 100 percent of his second serves to Federer’s backhand in the deuce court. On Sunday, though, Thiem showed right away that he wasn’t going to stick to that pattern; on a critical point in the early going, he went up the T with a second serve and forced an error from Federer.
Thiem never stopped taking risks with his serve, either. Serving for the match at 6-5 in the second set, he reached 30-15 with a hooking, 110-m.p.h second serve that Federer couldn’t handle. For the night, Thiem hit his first serve 12 m.p.h. faster than he normally does (128 to 116).
Of course, a win this important couldn’t happen without a hiccup or two. Thiem’s came when he was trying to serve it out at 6-5 in the second. With the match on his racquet, he got tight and netted a routine backhand, and then a short forehand. Would his nerves fail him at the finish line, and all of his daring and shot-making go for nought?
He had come too far to stop firing now. He saved one break point with a service winner, and another with a forehand winner. With that, Thiem had his third win over Federer this season, and a 1-0 record at the 2019 ATP Finals. And his hard-court game is officially on our radar.