A hallmark of a champion is their ability to rise when it matters the most, and World No.3 Dominic Thiem displayed that attribute in spades when he stunned Rafael Nadal in straight sets 7-6(7) 7-6(4) in their round-robin encounter at the Nitto ATP finals on Tuesday.
With this titanic win over Nadal, Thiem has also confirmed his spot in the semis for the second consecutive season after he was a runner-up at last year’s season-ending finals. Not only the victory itself, but also the way Thiem achieved it was mesmerizing as his sensational win provides further evidence of his ever-improving prowess on hard courts.
Thiem was the first to trail in both sets, but the Austrian was relentless and refused to give an inch to the Spaniard. As the intriguing first set rolled into the tiebreak, Nadal–who lost all the three tiebreaks against the Austrian at the Australian Open earlier this year–was determined to turn the tide this time around and was heading in the right direction when he led 5-2. But, the reigning US Open champion was to strike back to level the tiebreak at 6-6. Down a set point at 6-7, the Austrian produced a magnificent inside out forehand to save the set point in style. At this point, both the players looked inseparable, but it was Thiem who yet again caressed a precise and picture-perfect inside out forehand to steal the set 9-7 in the tiebreak.
Again in the 2nd set, it was Nadal who broke the Austrian first, taking the 7th game. The Spaniard was looking good to level the match at one set apiece. However, Thiem was in no mood to relinquish control of the set just yet, as he broke the 20-time Grand Slam champion right back to level the set 4-4. Eventually, Thiem won the 2nd set tiebreak 7-4 in a convincing manner to put the Spaniard’s challenge and resistance to bed, in a pulsating encounter and in the process recorded one of the finest wins of his career so far.
Once labelled as just a clay-court specialist, Thiem has now become a powerhouse on hard courts as well and his evolution as a quality player on hard courts began post his debacle at the US Open last year. From his first-round exit at New York in 2019 to being crowned champion at the US Open this year, and then having qualified for the semifinal at the current season-ending finals, the Austrian has been having a monumental time on the hard courts.
While Thiem still has a lot of scope of improvement as far as his net game is concerned, his newly developed ability to take the backhand early has been paying rich dividends for the Austrian in addition to heavy artillery of strokes he possesses. His willingness not only to take the backhand early, but also to hit it flat and hard and to the either side of the court has been detrimental to his opponent’s chances of returning the ball, robbing the time away from his rivals.
Just like last year, when he defeated Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic to kickstart his campaign at the Nitto ATP finals, Thiem is off to a sensational start this year after edging past Stefanos Tsitsipas and Nadal–and is perhaps the 2nd favorite after Djokovic to win the title this year. After recording his maiden Grand Slam win at the US Open earlier this September, the Austrian now knows how elite success tastes like and what it takes to get there, which will definitely boost his confidence as he approaches the business end of the year-ending finals.
If the Austrian can manage to shrug off complacency and the drop in the intensity that he has been guilty of in the past, the 27-year-old appears to be the man to beat at this year’s season-ending finals. It would be captivating to witness Thiem’s journey in the knockout stages as he aims to go the distance this year.
Main Photo from Getty.