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By Richard Pagliaro | Tuesday, November 17, 2020

 
Dominic Thiem

Dominic Thiem saved two set points in the first-set tiebreaker then rallied from a break down in the second set repelling Rafael Nadal 7-6(7), 7-6(4) remaining unbeaten at the ATP Finals.

Photo credit: ATP Finals Facebook

The thrill of the chase fuels Dominic Thiem’s deep drive.

The third-ranked Thiem made Open Era history rallying from two-sets down to defeat Alexander Zverev in the first US Open final fifth-set tiebreaker in September.

Djokovic: Play Best-of-Three Sets Everywhere

Today, Thiem tapped into his tiebreak toughness and the power of pursuit running down Rafael Nadal.

A stubborn Thiem saved two set points in the first-set tiebreaker then rallied from a break down in the second set edging Nadal 7-6(7), 7-6(4) in an electric match remaining unbeaten at the ATP Finals in London.

If there had been a crowd on hand at the O2 Arena, they'd probably still be roaring right now after a pulsating match between champions.

"I mean, definitely one of the better matches I have played so far in my career," Thiem said. "I think it came close to the second-group match last year against Nole.

"I think we both played great tennis, and if we do so, at the end, matches like that are the outcome, and very, very small things make the difference, then like turned around the first-set break where probably he was the little bit better player in that first set, in that first-set breaker, but I still won it."






Thiem, who topped defending-champion Stefanos Tsitsipas in his round-robin opener on Sunday, enjoyed a double celebration day securing a semifinal spot after Tsitsipas saved a match point out-dueling debutant Andrey Rublev 6-1, 4-6, 7-6(6).

It's a gut-wrenching loss for Rublev, who fought back from 2-5 down in the decisive tiebreaker and held match point at 6-5. But the Russian gagged shoveling a second serve into net. Rublev's second double fault of the match came at the worst possible time and threw a life-line to Tsitsipas.

The Greek took the gift and ran with it ripping a forehand winner for a match point of his own and closing an intense one hour, 55-minute win when Rublev flagged a forehand into net.

"About double, it's not only about double," Rublev said. "In general, this kind of match are really painful, and doesn't matter if it was double or it was winner from him or mistake from me. In the end is the same. You lost the point."

Tsitsipas' survival win sends Thiem into the final four and sets up a final Group London round-robin match between Nadal and the sixth seeded Greek with a semifinal spot on the line. Rublev dropped to 0-2 and is eliminated from Group London contention.

Thiem kept his cool playing catch-up at critical stages and showed the guts to take the down the line strike. Thiem surged back from 2-5 down in the first-set breaker winning seven of the final nine points. The US Open champion was down a break at 3-4 in the second set when he broke right back.




Thiem’s tiebreak prowess has seen him win five consecutive breakers against Nadal, including winning all three tie breakers in his Australian Open quarterfinal victory last January.

It’s a painful loss for Nadal, who put himself in position to win and fought off three match points in the 10th game of the second set, but could not create closure in either breaker. Still, the 20-time Grand Slam champion was satisfied with the high-quality performance.

"He had three match points but I had 5-2 in the first set and two serves in the tiebreaks. Have been a great match of tennis," Nadal said. "Decided for a few small details. Just well done to him. He played I think an amazing match, and I played well too. So my feeling is not negative. I lost, but I had plenty of chances in the first and then I had break up in the second.

"Nothing to say. Just well done to Dominic. I'm happy with the way I played. I think my chances are bigger to have a very good result now than five days ago because the level of tennis, even if I lost today, for me is much higher."

This 15th meeting between Grand Slam champions was their third career clash on hard court.

It posed intriguing questions: Could Thiem handle Nadal’s twisting topspin high to his one-hander as he did in a gripping four-set conquest in the Australian Open quarterfinals in January? And could Nadal command the center of the court and assert his offense on pivotal points as he did fighting back from a two-set deficit to edge the Austrian in an electric fifth-set tiebreaker in the 2018 US Open quarterfinals?

A 21-shot rally on the second point of the match showed both men meant business from the start. Thiem climbed out of a love-30 hole with the aid of a serve-and-volley followed by an ace to level after two games.

Tennis Express

Through his first three service games, Nadal served just 41 percent, but lost just three points on serve. Showing superb net skills, Nadal nudged a delicate forehand volley into the short court closing a second hold at net for 3-2 after 20 minutes.




The 13-time Roland Garros champion won his first seven trips to net. Thiem showed court craft dabbing a forehand dropper that dragged Nadal into the doubles alley to dig out a tough hold leveling after six games.

In the seventh game, Thiem repelled successive serve-and-volleys with passes, but Nadal kept coming blocking a pair of volleys to help hold.




Several feet behind the baseline to return, Thiem flicked a backhand return by a net-rushing Nadal. A Thiem pass skipped off the tape over Nadal’s head putting the Austrian ahead love-30 in the ninth game. Nadal quieted the uprising with a flurry of deep drives.

Thiem stayed in step throughout the opening set that saw both men trying to set up first-strike forehands. The Austrian held to force a tiebreaker carrying the confidence of a 5-2 tiebreaker record against Nadal, including winning all three breakers they played in Melbourne.

An opening set dominated by the server turned in the tiebreaker as the returner won eight of the first nine points. Thiem thumped a heavy serve wide to level after 10 points only to toss in his first double fault of the day handing Nadal set point at 6-5.

The second seed buried a backhand into the middle of the net, but Thiem sent a forehand long handing Nadal a second set point.

Again, the Austrian dug in spinning a diagonal forehand to save it and level at 7-7.




When Nadal netted a backhand return, Thiem had his first set point. Backing the left-hander up with a ball off the baseline, Thiem saw his opportunity and pounced, stepping in and drilling an inside-out forehand winner. Thiem saved two set points rallying from 2-5 down in the tiebreaker to snatch the 73-minute opener in which Nadal won one more point.

"I had my chances. I missed a little bit in the tiebreak when I had the advantage," Nadal said. "I did I think all the things well during the match. Just the only negative thing I was not able to convert some kind of key points that makes the biggest difference in the whole match.

"But as I said before, my feeling is not negative. Of course sad for the loss, but at the same time, happy for Dominic that he played a great match."

In 13 of their prior 14 matches the first-set winner had gone on to win the match. Would that precedent hold true today?

Few players shrug off loss like Nadal. The left-hander lured Thiem forward with a short slice drawing a netted forehand for break point. The US Open champion didn’t budge, banging a forehand winner to save it and spark a hold to start the second set.




Staring down a love-30 hole in the seventh game, Thiem responded with successive aces but sent a forehand down the line long to face a second break point. Thiem had an open expanse of court down the line, but opted to play his forehand inside-out where Nadal was waiting hooking a forehand winner down the line to score the first break of the day for 4-3.

Of course, it’s not really a break until you hold and Thiem made Nadal work hard in the eighth game. Nadal saved one break point, but Thiem torched a series of crackling drives drawing the short ball and whipping an inside-out forehand to break back and level after eight games.

Thiem’s resilience was a key component today. The Austrian navigated a tricky hold for 5-4.

Scoreboard pressure spooked Nadal who botched a smash to face triple match point. The Spaniard saved the first match point firing a forehand down the line.

Ratcheting up the drama on the second match point, Nadal hit a second-serve-and-volley then tripped a drop volley off the tape drawing to 30-40. A big serve erased the third match point.




Nadal knocked off the case then sprinted with his back to the net to extend the point with a spectacular tweener lob before banging a backhand pass down the line.

Three match points erased as Nadal showed explosiveness leveling after 10 games.

"I was a little bit nervous of course because I kind of had the chance to win the match, but he played three outstanding points," Thiem said. "He had two very good first serves, and then one time he played serve and volley on the second serve, where he surprised me because he went wide with the second serve. He did great volley. So I couldn't do anything.

"I mean, I didn't lose the match points but he saved them great. So just told myself that it's super important not lose any intensity now but to play the next game as good as possible to go up 6-5, and that's what I did."

After two hours, 17 minutes the match escalated into a second-set tiebreaker.

Seeing his opponent move forward, Thiem lasered a backhand pass down the line for the mini break then crunched a crosscourt backhand for 5-3.

The down-the-line strike proved pivotal as Thiem torched a forehand down the line for three more match points sending coach Nicolas Massu leaping from his seat pumping both fists.




On his fourth match point, Thiem closed a high-quality two hour, 25-minute win when Nadal missed a backhand wide.

"I'm super happy with that performance," Thiem said. "As I said, indoors and hard courts, it was probably one of the better matches I have ever played. It came very close to last year's match against Novak here. Also second-group match, which is probably the best three-setter I have ever played.

"And as I say, today came very close to that match, and, yeah, now the goal is to enjoy this victory and to maintain that level until Thursday."

The 20-time Grand Slam champion can still qualify for the final four as he continues chasing the ATP Finals crown that has eluded him.

 

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