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Tennis News • The Winner Does Not Necessarily Take All As Thiem Downs Nadal At The ATP Finals

Dominic Thiem breathes a sigh of relief after winning an incredible clash against Rafael Nadal at the ATP Finals.

By Alix Ramsay

You have got to love round robin tennis.

Dominic Thiem won, arguably, the best match of the year so far on Tuesday. He played his heart out for two hours and 25 minutes and he, the US Open champion, beat Rafa Nadal, the French Open champion, 7-6, 7-6 as he did so. And Nadal was playing lights-out from the very first ball. It was the Austrian’s second win of the week.

But had he done enough to guarantee himself a place in the semi-finals? Er, no. Not at that point.

He would have to wait until the night session was finished and hope that Stefanos Tsitsipas, the man he edged past on Sunday, could beat Andrey Rublev, the man Nadal thrashed on Sunday. Should that happen, he would be able to relax and focus his attention on the weekend and the pursuit of the title he came so close to winning last year.

At the same time, Nadal, with one win and one loss, is not out of contention either. He could still reach the last four and he could even meet Thiem again in the final… but that is for the men with the calculators to work out. We have run out of fingers and thumbs and need a grown-up to do the sums for us.

What we do know is that, despite the bitter disappointment of losing on Tuesday, Nadal ought to be buzzing with the level of play he brought to the O2 Arena. As for Thiem, he is growing into his status as one of the big boys with every set that passes. Since he won in New York, there is a different look to him and the few people allowed into the O2 have noticed the change: he walks, talks and looks like an established grand slam winner now. His performance on Tuesday simply added more fuel to that argument.

“I think that today I played a little bit higher level than at the US Open and was maybe the best match for me since the restart of the tour,” Thiem said. “That makes me super happy.

Dominic Thiem of Austria in action against Rafael Nadal.

“It was definitely one of the better matches I have played so far in my career. I think we both played great tennis, and if we do so, at the end, matches like that are the outcome, and very, very small things make the difference, then like turned around the first-set break where probably he was the little bit better player in that first set, in that first-set breaker, but I still won it.

“Even though Rafa is like 100 per cent from the first to the last point, it’s very, very important to get that first set against him, because the winning percentage he has after winning the first set is incredible and almost impossible to beat him after losing the first set.

“So I was lucky and happy to get that first one in the tiebreak. And then second set I think had everything. It was a great match which I will remember for a long time.”

As soon as the draw was made, this was the marquee match for the round robin stages. On the clay of Paris, Thiem had pushed and pushed as hard as he could in two Roland Garros finals and each time, Nadal had kept him at arm’s length. But indoors on the Spaniard’s least favourite surface and at his least successful tournament – this was always going to be a cracker.

There was not a gnat’s gnadger between them for the first set, not a break point to be seen. Thiem was using his forehand like a piledriver; Nadal was serving with guile and pace and unleashing forehand howitzers of his own. And then they reached the tiebreak.

Nadal serves during his match against Thiem.

In 16 points, only five went with serve. But this was not two men fluffing their chances; this was two great champions playing each shot – much less each point – as if their lives depended upon it. Nadal was 5-2 up. Thiem came galloping back. Nadal had two set points. Thiem snatched them away again (the second with a 100mph forehand winner). And then Thiem had a set point and, with another lethal forehand, the set was his.

Not that it seemed to change the momentum much. On they went, matching ridiculous winner for ridiculous winner, until Nadal finally punched his way through the Thiem serve. He was 4-3 to the good; was this the moment that the match would change? Not a bit of it. Thiem broke straight back. He had waited for nearly two hours to get his first look at a break point and now he had two of them. He was not going to miss an opportunity like that.

Even so, Nadal did not skip a beat. He kept whittling away at Thiem’s serve until he thought he had manufactured another break point: he read the serve, he was there and ready for it and…he sent the return a fraction of an inch wide. He could not believe it.

Only then did his concentration waver. Three of the sloppiest points he had played all afternoon (probably three of the sloppiest points he had played all season) presented his rival with three match points. Cue Rafa gritting his teeth and fighting back to force another tiebreak. This time, though, when Thiem had another three match points, Nadal could not stop the inevitable and 17 minutes after his first sight of the finish line, Thiem claimed his win.

Nadal fights back, gritting his teeth to force another tiebreak.

“Have been a great match of tennis,” Nadal said. “Decided for a few small details.

Just well done to him. He played, I think, an amazing match, and I played well too. So my feeling is not negative. I lost, but I had plenty of chances in the first and then I had break up in the second.

“I really don’t feel that he played better than me or I played better than him. I think both of us played at very high level. He deserves to win because he played little bit better some key moments. That’s it. That’s the tennis in these kind of surfaces.

Winner Dominic Thiem (L) of Austria greets Rafael Nadal of Spain after their hard fought match at the ATP Finals in London.

“Nothing to say. Just well done to Dominic. I’m happy with the way I played. I think my chances are bigger to have a very good result now than five days ago because the level of tennis, even if I lost today, for me is much higher.”

For both of them, winner and loser, there is still everything to play for. That’s why you have got to love round robin tennis.