The 12th and last edition of the Nitto ATP Finals in London’s distinctively modern O2 Arena was a singularly dynamic season-ending showcase for the sport. The world’s Top 4 players all made it to the penultimate round, producing a pair of riveting semifinals which led to a first class final-round skirmish. Top seeded Novak Djokovic—searching for a record-tying sixth crown—and No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal—determined to capture what is arguably the fifth most prestigious title in tennis for the first time in his career—both moved within striking distance of a place in the title-round duel.
Djokovic rallied gallantly from the brink of defeat in the second set of his clash with Thiem, saving four match points and building a commanding 4-0 lead in his third set tie-break with the Austrian workhorse. Yet Thiem blasted his way out of that dark corner, sweeping seven of the last eight points to improbably prevail, 7-5, 6-7 (10), 7-6 (5). Nadal served for the match at 5-4 in the second set against Daniil Medvedev, but the Russian rallied valiantly to overcome the Spaniard, 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-3.
The final was another high quality and hard-fought contest between a pair of unwavering warriors. Medvedev once more had his back to the wall but in the end, he toppled Thiem down the stretch with a potent blend of ingenuity, perspicacity and willpower, claiming the biggest crown of his career with a 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4 victory, and establishing himself as the first man ever to defeat the Top-3 ranked players in tournament history.
So what do the exploits of these two remarkable competitors in London tell us about what to expect from them in 2021? Despite following up his 2019 US Open final-round showing by reaching the semifinals this year, Medvedev, 24, did not do himself justice for most of the 2020 campaign. He failed to reach a final in his first nine tournaments, and bowed out in the fourth round of the Australian Open and the first round of Roland Garros. But he ended the season with a flourish, claiming the Rolex Paris Masters title before going undefeated in London, closing his season with 10 consecutive match wins to solidify his status as the No. 4-ranked player in the world.
The 27-year-old Thiem concludes 2020 stationed at No. 3, having won his first major title at the US Open before narrowly falling short in the title-round contest at the ATP Finals for the second year in a row. Following up ably on his 2018 and 2019 runs to the finals of Roland Garros, Thiem has been around the upper echelons longer than Medvedev, finishing 2020 among the Top 5 for the third time in four years.
The feeling grows that Thiem and Medvedev are going to challenge Djokovic and Nadal ferociously over the year ahead in the battle for world supremacy.
As Medvedev said in London after his gratifying indoor triumph, “I think it can give me a lot for my future career. I mean, to beat Dominic the way he played today is probably the best victory of my life.
Not even talking about the title itself but I mean to win a Masters being undefeated, I know I can play good but I would not believe it if you would tell me this before the tournament.
“So it is a great boost of confidence for all the Slams coming up and all the tournaments. Hopefully I can continue this way.”
Thiem spoke with similarly quite confidence about his road ahead, saying, “It was a very intense year. Since the tour returned it was super intense so I haven’t set any goals yet for next year. But of course I want to climb up the rankings. I mean, this year has been amazing. I was playing great and had some deep runs in many, many big tournaments. That’s what I want to do as well next year, and if I’m able to do that I think I will get chances to climb the rankings.”
He is well positioned to do just that. Thiem’s US Open victory put him on the board at last as a major champion. He made that breakthrough under the most complicated of circumstances, rescuing himself from two sets to love and a service break down in the third set against Sascha Zverev, recouping later in the fifth set after the German served for the match, prevailing in a tense tiebreaker at the end.
That was one of those days when Thiem “won ugly” because he simply didn’t have anything like his best stuff through a strenuously long New York afternoon into evening. But in London, he put his finest tennis on display in ousting Nadal in a pair of tie-breaks during a round-robin clash and then overcame Djokovic in a dandy of a semifinal duel. Losing in the final against a top-of-the-line Medvedev was not a serious setback.
Thiem’s recent stream of success against the game’s Big 3 of Djokovic, Nadal and Roger Federer must be highly encouraging for him and his biggest boosters. He is 5-2 against Federer and won their three most recent encounters—all in 2019. That included a career-turning point on hard courts when he stopped the Swiss in the Indian Wells final for his first Masters 1000 title.
Although Thiem is 6-9 in his career against Nadal, he has taken three of their last four matches and five consecutive tie-breaks against the Spaniard across their last two showdowns at the Australian Open and in London. Moreover, despite bowing against Nadal in two finals and one semifinal at Roland Garros through the years, Thiem has recorded four wins on that surface over the King of Clay.
Meanwhile, Thiem has lost seven of twelve meetings against Djokovic but he has beaten the Serbian in five of their last seven encounters. Add to that Thiem’s 3-2 lead over Medvedev and it all augers well for him in the future.
Medvedev reinvented his career in the summer and fall of 2019 when he reached six finals in a row, taking three trophies in that span, and pushing Nadal to the hilt in a gripping five-set US Open title match.
The Russian’s win over Nadal in London was his first in four meetings with the Spaniard and a critical step psychologically. Making it all the more remarkable was the way he denied Nadal what looked like a sure win. Nadal did not win a point when he served for the match at 5-4 in the second set. Medvedev never really looked back.
Medvedev has lost all three matches he has played against Federer but they have not met since the spring of 2019. But he has fared well against Djokovic. After losing his first three encounters against the Serbian, Medvedev has taken three of the last four, including a 6-3, 6-3 triumph in London. To be sure, Djokovic was not in form, dropping seven straight games after leading 3-2 in the first set. But Medvedev plainly likes the matchup and Djokovic knows precisely what he is up against each and every time they confront each other.
And yet, there will be a bunch of other prominent players in the mix over the next year or two at the very top tier.
“Everything is so close,” Thiem said. “Rafa and Nole are up there still. Roger is coming back next year. Guys like Daniil and Sascha and Stefanos Tsitsipas, and since this year Rublev. I think there are six, seven guys who will fight for the top spots in the next years.”
That is a fair assessment. Federer will be revitalized after not competing since losing to Djokovic in the semifinals of the 2020 Australian Open and inevitably he will rediscover his winning ways. Rublev made his move this year to finish this season at No. 8, and he will push hard for a Top-5 position in 2021. Zverev has some off-court issues to confront, but he responded commendably to his shattering US Open loss to Thiem by winning a couple of tournaments in Cologne and reaching the final of the Paris Masters. He will make his presence known again in 2021.
Djokovic was unlucky in some ways to win only one major this year because there was no Wimbledon and he took himself out of the US Open by carelessly swatting a ball and hitting a lineswoman. He was thus disqualified from that fourth-round match against Pablo Carreno Busta.
The view here is that Djokovic is good for at least one major in the coming year and possibly two. Nadal remains an overwhelming favorite to win Roland Garros. But Medvedev and Thiem will be entirely in the thick of the battle at the majors all year long. It would not surprise me if Djokovic triumphed Down Under and secured his ninth title Australian Open title, with Nadal then ruling in Paris for the 14th time. Thiem is not at his best on the lawns of Wimbledon, where Djokovic should still have the edge. Medvedev, however, will be dangerous in that setting. At the US Open, there is a very good chance that either Thiem will defend or Medvedev will succeed.
Medvedev is among the most tactically astute players in tennis. No one is better at launching “sneak attacks,” as he demonstrated so convincingly against both Nadal and Thiem in London. Two moments stand out in my mind that are illustrative of Medvedev’s extraordinary acumen with his surprise journeys to the net.
The first is when Nadal was serving at 3-3 in the final set of his semifinal versus the Russian. Medvedev released a solid backhand down the line, saw the chance to come in, and made a delayed approach. Nadal went down the line off the backhand and Medvedev punched his volley crisply right back up the line. Nadal was off balance, tossing up a lob. Medvedev easily put his overhead away for the crucial break. From there he ran out the match.
Next, against Thiem in the final, Medvedev was locked at 2-2 in the third set. Once more, his instincts were uncanny. On break point, he struck a crosscourt backhand from a deep position, approached crosscourt to catch Thiem off guard, punched a backhand volley crosscourt and closed off the net for a forehand volley winner into the clear, That was the lone break of the final set, and Medvedev achieved it as much with his masterful mind as with his impenetrable game.
The 6’6” Medvedev is strikingly agile for a man of his size. He cuts down his adversaries with constantly varying game plans. This man is a match player of the highest order who makes all of his rivals uncomfortable with his unconventionality.
Thiem is cut from a different cloth. The brute force of his game can be breathtaking. No one can clock a forehand quite like him. His serve has improved markedly over the last year (in his three London matches against Nadal, Djokovic and Medvedev, he was broken only twice in seven sets) and his variation off the backhand with the lethal topspin and the biting slice is unparalleled.
Daniil Medvedev. Dominic Thiem. Here are two great players approaching their zeniths with the future at their feet.
As Medvedev said in London, “From Dominic and me, we both managed to beat Rafa and Novak, which is an amazing accomplishment. Even if we’re not young anymore, we are the other generation than Rafa and Novak. And it’s a great achievement from us.”
Medvedev elaborated, “I have played a lot against Stefanos, Sascha Zverev and Dominic. Hopefully the matches like today with Dominic—and at the US Open [when Dominic beat me] because I don’t want to focus only on my win—if we have a lot of matches like this, we are definitely going to push each other through all of our careers, and hopefully everybody will get the piece of the cake.”