With pleasing symmetry, the Nitto ATP Finals picked up where it left off. A year ago in London, Stefanos Tsitsipas won the title when he beat Dominic Thiem in a gem of a final, 6-7 (6), 6-2, 7-6 (4). Today, in the tournament’s first singles match, Thiem turned the tables. Over the course of two hours and 17 minutes, the reigning US Open champion demonstrated just enough cohesion and proficiency at the key stages to earn a 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-3 victory.
Enveloping all of this was the atmosphere that accompanies Pandemic Era tennis. Twelve months ago, Tsitsipas and Thiem played in front of a packed 02 Arena. As these two versatile shot-makers dazzled the crowd with a wide range of rallies that stretched into all corners of the courts, fans loudly cheered. But on this Sunday afternoon in London, while each player’s mastery of the court continued, even now, three months after the return of pro tennis, the austerity and silence remain disconcerting.
Asked to cite the major difference between last year’s match and today’s Tsitsipas simply said, “People – in the stands.” Thiem concurred. “You get so much energy from the fans,” he said. “All of this is missing and you have to bring it up yourself… all the time, you have to push yourself, give yourself energy, yeah, that’s exhausting.”
This was the eighth time these two played one another. Thiem led 4-3, but the most recent had been the Tsitsipas win in London last year. Thiem-Tsitsipas is a terrific rivalry that will likely only get even better, a rare matchup between sparkling one-handed backhands, thundering forehands and a rare pair of combatants who each possess a hearty appetite for volleying.
The greater contrast is in more nuanced factors such as shot selection, court position and maturity. The 27-year-old Thiem has harnessed his many pieces and by now we are all quite familiar with his arsenal and the exceptionally physical way Thiem inflicts it on his opponents. With the 22-year-old Tsitsipas, less is defined – a youthful aspect that is concurrently promising and uncertain.
Tsitsipas’ vagueness surfaced vividly in the first set tiebreaker. A long Thiem forehand at 1-1 gave Tsitsipas a mini-break for 2-1. Two wide aces made it 4-1. But then, with Tsitsipas serving at 5-3, he chased down a short ball to his backhand, only to delicately feather it down the line rather than lash his preferred topspin drive. With enough time to reach the ball, Thiem cracked a forehand crosscourt pass to get back on serve.
Three points later, Tsitsipas served at 5-6 and opened up the court well enough to set up an easy chance to close out the point. But rather than terminate it with a smash, Tsitsipas pounded a forehand. Thiem read it perfectly, lofted a lob over the Greek’s head, charged the net and clipped a penetrating backhand volley that Tsitsipas lobbed long. Just like that, Thiem had snatched the set. Reflecting on his poor decision, Tsitsipas said, “That was the silliest thing that ever happened to me… Didn’t take time to think where I wanted to go.” So goes the education of a young contender.
Though Tsitsipas’ play picked up in the second set – most notably with the precision of his forehand – his proficiency fell early in the decider when he was broken at 0-1. As compelling as it is to see the passion this man brings to his tennis, the mini-rollercoaster he sometimes rides holds the potential of reducing the quality of his play. That one dip was just enough to keep Thiem ahead throughout the third. Thiem’s only hiccup came when he served at 3-1 and took ten minutes to hold, along the way fighting off a break point when Tsitsipas missed a backhand. The hurdle vaulted, Thiem lost only two points in his next two service games, swiftly went up 40-love at 5-3 and closed it out at 15.
Of course we haven’t seen the last of Tsitsipas. He’ll soon be playing ATP Finals rookie Andrey Rublev and Rafael Nadal. Certainly Tsitsipas can draw comfort from knowing that while he lost to Nadal last year in fantastic three-setter – 6-7 (5), 6-4, 7-5 – he also went to win the tournament.
Arriving in London last year, Thiem had played 63 matches. But today’s win over Tsitsipas was only his 30th of 2020. Tiring as it may be for Thiem to compete in front of no fans, there’s no question he has come to the ATP Finals fresher than ever. It will be fascinating to see how that plays out in Thiem’s future matches versus Nadal and Rublev.