What a way to end the 2020 season with the four best players in the world meeting this final weekend in London at the ATP Finals.
Today, the old guard Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal fell by the wayside to Dominic Thiem and Daniil Medvedev, respectively.
Both Djokovic and Nadal were well in position to put away their younger foes and reach the final, but failed to finish the job.
In the first match, for the fourth time in as many matches, Djokovic and Thiem battled to the brink. Thiem was the better player from the start, pounding that heavy forehand and using his serve effectively.
The 5-time champion Serb wouldn’t go away. Djokovic fought off four match points during an epic second set breaker.
There wasn’t much between the two in the third with not a break point to be had.
But in the final breaker, Djokovic looked well in command at 4-0 until Thiem decided to just go for broke. And it worked. The 27-year-old ran off seven of the last eight points to stun the World No. 1 for a second straight year in the last few minutes of play.
After 2 hours, 54 minutes, it was Thiem taking it 7-5, 6-7(10), 7-6(5).
“It was for sure a mental battle. I got so tight in the second-set tie-break because to play these legends is always going to be something special,” said Thiem. “Playing for the final here at the Nitto ATP Finals is also something very special and I thought that after my first big title in New York, maybe I’m going to be a little bit more calm, but that was a mistake, I guess.
“I was just as tight and as nervous as before. It was so much on the edge that match, like every single match here. The best players in the world are facing off. So I’m just incredibly happy to be through and just try to get ready for tomorrow.”
Full credit to Thiem for recovering from those four missed match points in the second set breaker. That’s a heck of an effort. One aided, I’m sure, by his Grand Slam title In New York.
“After I fought so hard to get to the final in the group stage and as well now today. Of course I will try everything to win the title,” said Thiem.
“It’s going to be the last match of a very special, of a very tough year for everybody, I guess. We’re going to try to put a great show for everybody that is watching.”
After a strange last three months of 2020, Djokovic seemed unfazed by the loss. Almost glad to end the year. He played well, but I just didn’t see that intensity and drive. I still feel like he lost something more than a match at the US Open default.
”The difference was that when you hit full power and everything goes in, it just goes in. When you hit full power, sometimes it goes out. So simple. He did everything right from 0-4,” said Djokovic. “I have to put my hats down and say, congratulations. I actually didn’t play bad any point after 4-0. I thought every point, I was in it. I did hit the ball, I was not pushing it, but he just smashed it and he just played great.”
Djokovic, who was trying to win his first ATP Finals title since 2015, has five such trophies. Nadal has none. It’s about the only thing he’s missing in his trophy case.
Facing Daniil Medvedev, who he beat at the ATP Finals last year from a match point down and defeated on two other occasions including the US Open final, Nadal looked comfortable early on against the lanky Russian who came in without dropping a set. That would change.
Nadal snuck an early break and behind some strong net play, hung on to a first set win.
In the second, Medvedev began to get a better read on Rafa’s second serve, and he took charge to jump out 4-1. His serve was rolling while Nadal was on his heels. But the Spaniard wouldn’t give in.
Just when it looked like Medvedev would romp, Nadal settled back down winning four straight games to serve for the match when…crash. Nadal got broken at love and predictably he would drop the set minutes later in a breaker.
With Rafa’s serve looking shakier by the game and his net play falling off, Medvedev broke at 3-all and against for the match to win it 3-6, 7-6(4), 6-3 and reach his first career final at this tournament.
“I felt really strange until 5-4 for him in the second set, when he was serving for the match,” Medvedev said. “It felt like I was doing great shots but there was no link in my game and that was why I was losing. He was better in the important moments, I couldn’t return in the important moments, I couldn’t make a good shot in the important moments.
“I decided to change some small things. Just being closer, going for it a little bit more. I felt like I had the chances to win before some games, a set maybe, but it didn’t work, so I had to change and it worked really well. I am really happy about it.”
Nadal comes up just short once again. And it his age, this may have been his last best chance to finally win this thing.
“At the end of the set I was playing a little bit better than him, and then in the 5-4 I think he played a good game and I didn’t. I played a bad game. That’s it,” Nadal said of the second set. “But I had a big opportunity. I lost a big opportunity. Well done to him. He’s playing great. I wish him all the best.”
So once again the Big 3 come up empty in London, but that makes way for a new champion for a fifth straight year. Who will it be?
DANIIL MEDVEDEV d DOMINIC THIEM
I picked Medvedev to win it at the start, and even though the eye test, head-to-head and recent results tell me Thiem, I’ll stick with the big Russian.
Medvedev, who is 1-3 against Thiem, has that momentum going again. He won Paris, won his last nine matches and just beat Nadal for a first time. So his confidence has to by sky high.
Thiem’s also feeling good. He’s got the experience of having nearly won it last year, and this time in the final, he comes in as a Slam champion. A man who belongs.
“Dominic is playing amazing right now. Already in the US Open when I lost against him, after the match I was sitting in the locker and I was like, ‘I was playing good this match.’ But he managed to do it, he won his first Grand Slam,” Medvedev said. “The first two times on Centre Court was with him. We had good rallies, it was a really good level of tennis and I said to my coach, ‘He can go far here.’ I don’t know if he said the same… but I am going to see him tomorrow.”
We know what Thiem is going to do: crush the ball and get the big guy moving. Medvedev, though, is a puzzle. He might stay back, he might play aggressive, he might try to crack serves. I don’t know. We don’t know and I don’t think anyone does, not even him.
But that variety indoors — albeit on a slow-ish court — I think is the difference.
I think Medvedev uses just enough variation to confound Thiem and get him off his game. If he tries to match power with power, he’ll lose. And indoors, the guy who serves better usually wins. This week, that edge goes slightly to Medvedev. And I also think he’s returning better.
In a tight two sets…
The Pick: Medvedev 75 76(5)
Of course it would not surprise me of any result, even a blowout either way. The match a dead-even affair between these two guys who will meet many more times on the big stage like this.
But again, we should thank our lucky stars that after such a traumatic, tumultuous year, pro tennis is even happening. That’s the main takeway.
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