Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have not only inspired. They have educated. From top ten mainstays to beginners, every kind of tennis player has learned extensively from these three titans.
But surely one of their finest students is Dominic Thiem. Saturday, in the semis of the Nitto ATP Finals, Thiem earned his 16th win over a Big Three member, taking nearly three hours to beat Djokovic, 7-5, 6-7 (10), 7-6 (5), and reach the final of this tournament for the second straight year.
Thiem won with his own version of the brilliance the Big Three have shown for years—balance, footwork, swing shape, shot selection, and, most pointedly, the ability to remain calm in the face of adversity and come up with great shots when it matters most. “It was for sure a mental battle,” said Thiem, who also took his 300th ATP victory.
Said Djokovic, who led 4-0 in the third set tiebreaker before losing seven of the last eight points, “I was in a driver's position at 4-Love. I thought I was very close to win it. I mean, he just took it away from me. But he deserved it, because he just went for it and everything worked.”
“Of course I'm super happy that it worked out today, but it's not gonna be like that in every match,” said Thiem. “I know that. I'm just super happy that in such an important match like the semifinals of the Nitto ATP Finals it worked out like that.”
Thiem’s tranquility challenge came when he lost four match points in the second set tiebreaker. They’d been erased by a fine Djokovic serve, a Thiem double-fault, an errant Thiem forehand and then, one of the best shots of the day, a Djokovic inside-in forehand winner laced so hard and clean that it seemingly took the line with it. Having leveled the match, Djokovic upped his 2020 tiebreaker record to a staggering tally of 15-1. This was vivid and intimidating proof of Djokovic’s stated approach to such situations: Hunker down. Don’t miss. Make the other guy beat you.
While it’s one thing to hold such a policy in one’s head, it’s another vocalize it—and yet another to keep the promise so frequently. Djokovic has often proven himself as successful under pressure as anyone tennis has ever seen, a notion demonstrated most brilliantly in the 2019 Wimbledon final when he fought off two championship points versus Federer and then took the title in a decisive tiebreaker.
So when the third set entered the same stage—and Thiem opened with a double-fault—it was hard to imagine Djokovic losing; even more so once he snapped up those first four points, surely a stranglehold of a lead.
“I took him as an example, because he has won so many important tiebreaks in his career,” said Thiem. “I have the feeling that when he's going into the tiebreaker, he just refuses to miss. That's what I tried to do as well, especially from the restart of the tour. I tried to do that and it works out super well.”
But just because Thiem has studied the greats, doesn’t mean he simply replicates them. Consistent as a player must be to reach Thiem’s heights, the Austrian has built his own playing style, underpinned by fitness, propelled by movement, fueled most heavily by the confidence not of a defender, but of an aggressor. By now we have seen Thiem win enough high-stakes matches to know he is not merely bold. He is skilled. It’s not a risk if you own it.
At 0-4, Thiem hit an ace down the T, but remained down two mini-breaks (this had also been the case in his first set tiebreaker against Nadal earlier in the tournament, a tiebreaker Thiem went on to win). Next, a whipped forehand placement. Still, Djokovic served at 4-2. Then came an awkward sequence, Djokovic attempting a one-handed slice backhand crosscourt approach shot ala Patrick Rafter. It went into the net, and just like that, the momentum shifted Thiem’s way. The Austrian fired another ace at 4-all, followed by the Thiem signature shot, a lashing crosscourt backhand winner to generate a fifth match point. Djokovic fought off that one, but Thiem at last closed it out on his serve.
Said Djokovic, “He just crushed the ball. Everything went in from both corners, and he played couple of very short slices, you know, angles.”
As Thiem continues to excel, his playing style will come more closely under the microscope. What truly makes him effective? How does that beautiful backhand aid his cause? What, you tell me his forehand is even better? And what about the serve and his net game? As the distinct examples of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer have shown, the creation of a playing style is a complicated matter, involving everything from where and when a player starts to play to which instructors he or she learns from, as well as the player’s own mix of desires, talents and even such random factors as the local court surface.
“We younger players can feel super happy that these three living legends are still around and we can compete with them,” said Thiem. “Every match against them is a great opportunity. That's what I think about it.”
Thiem’s tennis may appear so instinctive, but keep in mind this definition of instinct: trained knowledge. This man is one keen student.