We're counting down the Top 10 matches of 2020 from Nov. 30 through Dec. 11. Click here to read each selection.
“I thought that after my first big title in New York, maybe I’m going to be a little more calm,” Dominic Thiem said, with what looked like a grin from under his mask. “But that was a mistake, I guess. I was just as tight and nervous as before.”
Thiem’s mistake was understandable. For years people had told him that when he finally won his first Grand Slam title, which he did at the US Open this summer, his confidence would flow, and all of the doubts he had harbored would magically disappear. The only problem was, while Thiem’s Open title was a milestone, it wasn’t quite the career breakthrough he might have hoped for. Yes, he had won a Slam. But he hadn’t beaten any of the Big 3 to do it.
So when Thiem took the court against Djokovic at the O2 Arena in London two months later, those old doubts were still floating around in the back of his head. He had beaten Djokovic on big occasions in the past, but he had lost their Australian Open final earlier in 2020 after being up two sets to one.
In London, Thiem kept the doubts at bay for most of the first two sets, as he and Djokovic threw ground-stroke haymakers at each other. Thiem fired inside-out forehands and 96-m.p.h. one-handed backhands into the corners. Djokovic ran everything down and parried every attack he could. In 35 games, there was just a single break of serve, by Thiem, which won him the first set.
The intensity of the exchanges rose through the second set, but Thiem again gained the edge in the tiebreaker. Four times he reached match point, but four times he was turned away. Djokovic hit a service winner and a forehand winner to save two of them; Thiem double faulted and shanked a forehand to lose the other two. When he put a backhand into the net to give Djokovic the set a minute later, it looked as if Thiem’s doubts about his ability to beat the Big 3 hadn’t been vanquished, after all.
There was no reason to think any differently at the start of the third-set tiebreaker. When Djokovic went up 4-0, the match appeared to be over; in reality, Thiem was just getting started. Over the next eight points, he came up with his most inspired stretch of play of the afternoon—as a TV commentator put it, he went “ballistic.” Thiem won one point with a brilliant crosscourt forehand winner, won another with an even better backhand crosscourt winner, and closed with a smash.
“What he did from 0-4 in the tiebreaker was just unreal,” Djokovic said. “He just crushed the ball, everything went in from both corners…He just took it away from me.”
That’s what champions do: They take the racquet out of your hand. And yet Thiem’s breakthrough feeling didn’t last long. The next day, in the final, he lost to Daniil Medvedev after winning the first set.
Despite that disappointment, Thiem can still look back on his semifinal performance for inspiration. He knows now that he’ll always get tight against the Big 3, but he also knows that he can beat them, anyway.