Five Most Entertaining ATP Tour matches of 2020: #2 – #1

Dominic Thiem at the Australian Open

This article follows from the previous, which explored the fifth to third most entertaining ATP matches of the year.

Featuring a performance worthy of the theatre in Dubai and a match dripping with quality at the O2 Arena, this article recounts the top two most entertaining matches on the ATP Tour of 2020.

#2. Dubai ATP 500 Semifinal: Novak Djokovic defeats Gael Monfils 2-6 7-6 (8) 6-1

Going into his semifinal against Gael Monfils in Dubai, Novak Djokovic had won 19 matches in a row. In his head-to-head against Monfils, he was a healthy 16-0. This should have been a walk in the park. The spectacle that followed was far from easy.

The 1st Set: Monfils rips up the script

In uncharacteristic fashion, Djokovic began tentatively, feeling the pressure of having everything to lose. On the other hand, Monfils played with the fluidity of a man with nothing to lose. Wickedly accurate serving prevented Djokovic from generating a break point throughout the first set. Furthermore, spectacular defence and counter-punched groundstrokes from the Frenchman forced Djokovic to pull the trigger too early, conceding two breaks on his way to a 2-6 first set loss. This was only his fifth set dropped in the season so far.

The 2nd Set: Unparalleled drama

When Djokovic dragged a forehand wide to concede an early break in the second set, nobody could help but wonder; could this be the match Monfils finally notched his first tour-level win over the Serb? Could the loveable showman end the Serbian legend’s win-streak? From here, the match lit up. Djokovic’s refusal to miss and a few timely dropshots brought the match back to even terms. Both players found themselves on the decks as they lunged for every ball. Despite initially leading in the second set, Monfils was the first player forced to grit his teeth: he saved five set points on his way to the tiebreak utilizing a dropshot, a forehand winner, a rocketed backhand, an angled hooked forehand and sturdy defence.

The match was alight before; in the tiebreak, it set ablaze. Monfils hit some fantastic forehand winners on his way to a 6-3 lead, igniting the crowd. Monfils exhaustedly hunched over and Djokovic looked as steely gazed as ever; the two players were well aware of their history on the tour, no matter how close to the end the match seemed. It was as though everybody in the arena was holding their breath except Djokovic. He staunchly held off the three match points, forcing Monfils to go for too much on all of them. Monfils saved a few more set points before finally capitulating – he double faulted to hand Djokovic the set of the season.

The 3rd Set: Monfils wilts

In the third set, Monfils was a broken man. Djokovic won the last six games in a row, dropping only five more points after conceding the first game enroute to his fifth Dubai Tennis Championships final. Though some might argue this marred the overall quality of the match, it was a poetic end. Nobody could keep their eyes on the court as the tragedy drudged its way to its inevitable conclusion.

This was the most heart-breaking match of the season. It therefore earns its spot as the second most entertaining match of the season.

#1. Nitto ATP Finals Round Robin: Dominic Thiem defeats Rafael Nadal 7-6 (7) 7-6 (4)

Nadal had lost to Thiem in Australia earlier in the year in four tight sets so he knew he would have to bring his A-game to defeat the Austrian at this year’s Nitto ATP Finals’ round robin stage. What ensued however perhaps surpassed even the players’ expectations. They went on to produce one of the highest-quality best-of-three matches of the last decade.

The 1st Set: Thiem survives a scare to come through a first set tiebreak

Nadal made it clear early on he would not make the same mistakes he made in Australia. In Melbourne, he made 34 trips to the net in four sets; in London, in the first set alone, he made 20 trips to the net, treating fans to some fantastic volleys and touch from the get-go.

At times, Thiem fought back against the tactical change with aplomb. Two clean backhand return winners in the seventh and ninth games showed that Thiem could deal with Nadal’s net-rushing fantastically. Nadal came up with the goods most of the time however as he won 14/20 net points in the first set. This forecourt mastery was highlighted by a moment of magic at 6-5 up. A brilliant lob from Nadal was followed by a tweener that stayed low from Thiem, before Nadal executed a perfect half-volley drop-shot.

The two players bruised their way through twelve games before appropriately reaching a tiebreak. Nadal continued to look for the move forward, going 5-2 up. At this point, Thiem made it clear why Nadal had decided to make this adjustment. He vaporized a forehand at 5-3 and a backhand up the line at 5-4 before evening at 5-5. He blinked first however, double-faulting at 5-5 to give Nadal set point. Rugged defence from the Austrian resulted in a netted backhand from Nadal. The Spaniard would get a second look at a set point after retrieving a fantastic return; Thiem snuffed it out with two massive forehands. On Thiem’s first set point, he reproduced two massive forehands to steal the set.

Thiem had turned up the heat when it counted: his average forehand speed increased from 81mph to 85mph in the breaker.

The 2nd Set: Nadal comes back from the brink but Thiem ultimately proves too strong

There was no let-off from either player in the second set. In the early stages, Thiem saved the first break point of the match with another bulldozing forehand. Nadal showed he was dialled in with a vintage running forehand pass in the third game.

Both men showed-off stunning passes and blistering groundstrokes of this calibre to hold their respective serves. Thiem’s level dropped first ever so slightly to offer Nadal a break point at 3-3. Thiem released an inside-out forehand cross-court but Nadal was privvy to it, unleashing his trademark forehand into the open space. However, by carving a cross-court slice passing shot and letting fly another backhand down the line, Thiem broke straight back.

It all looked done and dusted when Nadal found himself 0-40 4-5 down. Carlos Moya likely averted his gaze as Nadal trickled a drop-shot over the net to save the second match point. Nadal finished the recovery with a tweener lob, resulting in a less than perfect smash and botched drop-shot from Thiem that gave the Spaniard an easy put away.

Having danced with death, Nadal should have had the momentum in the second set tiebreak. But Thiem had other plans. At 3-3, he reeled off three straight winners before Nadal hooked a backhand wide on Thiem’s fifth match point, wrapping up his fifth tiebreak win in a row against Nadal.

Quality, not quantity, is the most important factor in an entertaining tennis match. The match may have been over in straight sets but the quality on display was top-drawer from start to finish. Both players hit a combined 62 winners between them.

As commentator Jamie Baker stated: “[Nadal] must be scratching his head at how he ended up losing the match in straight sets“. The two could have not put on a better match, earning the honor of most entertaining match of the year.

Honorable Mentions:

Main Photo from Getty.

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