On an absorbing first day at the ATP Finals, recent US Open champion Dominic Thiem eventually outclassed defending champion Stefanos Tsitsipas after a three-set battle, whilst 20-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal made light work of his Russian opponent, Andrey Rublev, who was making his debut at the season-ending finals. Nadal was ruthless against the young Russian, cruising to a 6-3 6-4 win in what was a statement of intent to the rest of the field.
He had arrived at the season-ending championships on the back of a straight-sets loss against Alexander Zverev in the semifinals at the Paris Masters a week ago. But witnessing the way Nadal went about his business in his opener against Rublev gave the impression that he had learned the lessons from his defeat against Zverev well. He was aggressive from the baseline and made few errors, especially from the backhand wing which had been below par against Zverev.
Where Nadal was comfortable in his resounding victory over Zverev, Thiem was made to work hard for his 7-6 4-6 6-3 win over Tsitsipas. The 27-year-old Austrian was able to elevate his game when it mattered the most, in the first-set tiebreak and then again when the match was in the balance in the third set. It was an important win for Thiem, who looked to be lacking intensity at the French Open and in Vienna, perhaps due to fatigue after his triumph at the US Open.
Nadal and Thiem’s contest on day three at the ATP Finals will be their first clash since their sensational quarterfinal at the Australian Open this January. In that match, Thiem won three tie-breaks to stun Nadal and in the process recorded his maiden victory over the Spaniard at a Major. However, it is Nadal who leads their head-to-head, 9-5, although, interestingly only two of those 14 meetings have come on hard courts, with the rest of their duels coming on the clay.
Still, whilst this will be their first match on indoor hard courts, it certainly has all the ingredients to be a blockbuster, with this pair having played each other often in the past four years. As a result, both players will be well aware of the challenges their opponent can throw at them in what looks likely to be predominantly a baseline battle.
Thiem has the game and the firepower to trouble the Spaniard on any surface, particularly hard courts, a surface which has perhaps become his best, and Nadal can ill afford any loose service games against him. The Austrian has the power to pounce on the smallest of errors and punish the briefest moments of hesitancy. And, if the match ends up being decided by tiebreaks, Thiem’s stellar-tiebreak record could well prove to be a game-changer.
It would not be a surprise if the match did feature at least one tiebreak, because it will not be easy to break in the fast conditions, especially for Nadal against a server with Thiem’s power. The 13-time French Open champion will need to defend his serve effectively, something he has struggled with in the past indoors. On the other hand, Thiem cannot allow the sort of sudden drop in his concentration and intensity level that he has been guilty of in the past up against the relentless Spaniard.
Regardless of who wins, however, this will only be the latest instalment in the intriguing and captivating rivalry that has been brewing between Nadal and Thiem since their first meeting at Roland Garros six years ago. There should certainly be plenty of entertaining tennis for the fans to enjoy in what promises to be another exciting chapter in their rivalry at the O2 Arena on day three at the ATP Finals in London.
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