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Tennis 10sBalls Reports From The 2019 Nitto ATP Finals • Berrettini Beats Dom Thiem

By Alix Ramsay

When the Nitto ATP Finals began, all the talk was of who would end the year as the world No.1 – Djokovic or Nadal. At the same time, Roger Federer had pulled out of the Rolex Paris Masters the week before in order to prioritise the end-of-year showcase event: he wanted another big title to make up for not winning a grand slam this year. The usual suspects were hogging the limelight, then.

For those looking for a new angle, there were the new boys on show: Sascha Zverev, the defending champion, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev. The Italians, though, were getting awfully excited about Matteo Berrettini. To be honest, it doesn’t take much for the Italians to get excited but Matteo’s stunning rise through the ranks this season was as good a reason as any.

Sitting quietly among this gathering of talent was Dominic Thiem, the tall, strong and gifted Austrian. Yes, he had reached two French Open finals but, yes, he had also lost both of them to Rafa. He had yet to prove that he could win against the big boys on the very biggest stages. And yet, when it came to setting the Tour Finals alight, it was Thiem who held the match.

True, he lost to Berrettini 7-6, 6-3 in his final round robin match on Thursday afternoon – cue the Italian press corps getting even more over-excited – but the result did not matter. He had already booked his place in the semi-finals. He could afford a quiet day at the office just this once.

Until Indian Wells this year, Thiem was thought of a dependable, solid, clay court type. People tended to ignore the fact that he had won a grass court title – Stuttgart in 2016 – and two hard court titles in Acapulco and St. Petersburg. He could play on surfaces other than clay it was just that he was happiest on the red stuff. And then he beat Federer to win the Indian Wells title, his first Masters 1000 trophy. Suddenly everyone was looking at him in a different light.

“It’s not my call to be known as a multi-surface player,” he said modestly back then, “but it’s nice for me and also for my confidence to have really good results also on the other surfaces.

“But it worked out pretty well. I have my grass court title. I have already two titles, one indoor and one outdoor on hard court. I like that surface. I like to play on it.

“But one thing would never change that clay is my home. It’s my favourite surface. I grew up on it. I just feel great whenever I come back at it. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not a good all-arounder, or not a good player on different surfaces.”

His path to the semi-finals in London looked rocky: Federer first, Djokovic after that. Both men were past masters at winning the event, both of them were very much at home in the O2 Arena. But both men were walloped by the Austrian and after beating Djokovic, Thiem thought it was the best match he had ever played. Djokovic, for his part, was stunned by the sheer power and precision of Thiem’s performance from first ball until last.

“I think that there are two main factors,” Thiem explained. “The first is that I really improve my aggressive game style. I’m coming in to the net way more, and that’s just important on the hard courts.

“And then also there are also some big advantages for me on surfaces like this. I don’t get the backhand in uncomfortably. I can hit it most of the time in a pretty good zone for me.

“That’s why I can go many times for a very risky shot, and the possibility that the ball goes in is pretty high because this surface makes it possible that I don’t have to hit it too uncomfortable. These are the two main factors, I think.”

The third factor, left unmentioned that night, was Nico Massu, the coach Thiem hired just before his Indian Wells success and the man who believes that his new charge could reach No.1 next year.

After a lifetime of working with Gunter Bresnik, Thiem realised that he needed to break out on his own. Thiem was three years old when he first met Bresnik and eight when he started being coached by his fellow Austrian. By the time Thiem was in his mid-20s, the relationship was more like father and son than coach and player – and there are some things you just can’t tell your dad.

“I think it was necessary to make a change,” Thiem said. “I had unbelievable success and an unbelievable road with my old coach but there was the moment I choose to need something new, to develop my personality, to develop my game on court and I was trying out with Nico and the first tournament we had together was Indian Wells so it was straight away a good decision. And then I realised more and more that he’s bringing very good stuff to my game.

“He’s able to develop my game into the right direction and most important of all, there is a great chemistry between us. He’s a great guy, very good character and I’m happy to be with him and I will be proud to have some good time with him.”

At last the solid, dependable and powerful Thiem had been let off the leash and the results have been spectacular. He won his fourth hard court title in Vienna last month to add to his hard court victory in Beijing and bring his tally of trophies for the year to five. Now he is the semi-finals in London with the scalps of Federer and Djokovic already in his kitbag. Massu has found a new Dominic Thiem hiding behind that quiet, polite exterior and the new Domi is homing in on the very biggest prizes in the sport.

“I think that my game has got more unpredictable [with Nico],” Thiem said. “That’s one big part. I mean, I have amazing groundstrokes. I’ve learned them. It was amazing with Gunter, but last few years sometimes I had the problems that I made amazing shots, but the game was too predictable somehow.

“At certain times I had the feeling opponents know where I’m going to play. I was hitting amazing shots which should be winners, but they haven’t been. I am adding some options to my game now, like some dropshots, some other shots which I wouldn’t hit before.

“When I was really young, I had an amazing talent to read the game and everything. That got a little bit lost. Now I have a really nice feeling that’s somehow coming back.”

Whether it is enough to take him all the way to the title, we wait to see. But, certainly, the men left standing in Greenwich are taking Mr Thiem and his hard court game very seriously indeed.

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