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Roller-Coaster Nitto ATP Tennis Finals Ends In Style, With Tsitsipas Outlasting Thiem In Thriller

By Ricky Dimon

If this was the wildest roller-coaster ride of a tournament that the Nitto ATP Finals has experienced since it moved to London in 2009, it ended in appropriate fashion.

Stefanos Tsitsipas outlasted Dominic Thiem in a back-and-forth 6-7(6), 6-2, 7-6(4) thriller after two hours and 35 minutes on Sunday evening. Tsitsipas recovered from a tough first set to dominate the second and the righted the ship late in the third after giving back a break midway through it, thus capturing by far the biggest title of his short but sweet career.

“Firstly, I was excited to be part of the Nitto Finals experience. For me, it was already a big thing. Now that I’m a champion, I don’t know how to explain it. I honestly don’t feel anything, because it’s too many emotions to feel something…. I remember myself watching this event on TV and thinking, ‘Oh, these guys have done an insane year to be playing here.’ And now I’m in the position to be champion, so it feels awesome.”

Either player could have been the last man standing with that feeling, as this was a tense one right from the start until the very end. Both players managed to hold serve all the way to a first-set tiebreaker–but not without trouble. Thiem saved three break points, one at 1-2 and two at 3-4, all with clean winners. The Austrian also recovered from 0-30 down at 5-6 to force the ‘breaker. Tsitsipas dug out of a hole at 3-3, fighting off one break point with a second-serve serve-and-volley and a second with a perfect backhand volley. The latter point was replayed after a Tsitsipas forehand had been called long to apparently give Thiem the break, but replay showed it to have clipped the line.

After earning one mini-break apiece, Tsitsipas shanked a backhand long on serve at 6-6. Thiem promptly closed out the opening frame of play with a service winner.

Plenty of momentum swings remained, and Tsitsipas was quick to turn things around in his favor right away in set two. The 21-year-old broke easily for 1-0 and again for 3-0, leaving Thiem to start mentally preparing for a decider. It was a decider that came quickly, as Tsitsipas surrendered a mere a two service points in the entire second set.

For a brief moment it looked like the world No. 6 would race through the third, as well. He broke in the third game and soon led 3-1, putting himself three games from the championship. With the finish line in sight, Tsitsipas finally cracked on serve for the first time all evening and was broken at 3-2 with a backhand wide. From there both men held their service nerves in impressive fashion to bring up another tiebreaker.

It was once again Thiem who battled back from the brink of defeat. The 26-year-old lost two straight service points at 1-2 and 1-3 only to get both of the mini-breaks back on Tsitsipas’ serve. Starting at 4-4, however, it was Tsitsipas who stayed strong and induced a trio of errors out of his opponent. One final forehand long left Thiem on his bench with his head buried in a towel and Tsitsipas sprawled on the ground in blissful disbelief.

“Probably, yes,” Thiem said when asked if this was the most painful loss of his career. “It’s not the end of the world, because I always think back on some matches in the past, like also in the last weeks, and I won some really close matches…to even get myself to the situation to play [this final].

“It’s always going to be like that in tennis; that’s why it’s probably mentally the most brutal sport existing, because you can play such a great match and end up losing in the championship match. From that point of view, it’s a very disappointing loss; very hard to digest. But on the same hand, I had some amazing wins also–even this week–that they get me in this situation even to play the finals. So it’s fine.”

As Thiem suggested, he had already played a part in great shows inside the O2 Arena while beating both Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. He did so again on Sunday with Tsitsipas, who first met his now-rival as a hitting partner at this event in 2016.

“That is unbelievable,” the champion said upon being reminded of what took place three years ago. “Yeah, first time I met Dominic was I came here as a sparring partner; was No. 1-ranked in the juniors rankings. I got invited by the ITF to come and be a sparring partner here in the finals. I think my first hit was with Dominic.

“It’s unbelievable, isn’t it? We are now facing each other in the final. It’s great. It’s fantastic.”

And it’s fantastic for the post-Big 3 future of tennis.

Ricky contributes to 10sballs.com and also maintains his own tennis website, The Grandstand. You can follow him on twitter at @Dimonator.

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