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Medvedev And Thiem Go Toe To Toe To Start A New Era In Men’s Tennis At The London Final Finals

Dominic Thiem reacts while playing against Novak Djokovic their semi-final match.

By Alix Ramsay

It is the dawning of a new age at the London O2 Arena. Forget the crowning of Stefanos Tsitsipas last year, Alexander Zverev the year before or even, bless him, Grigor Dimitrov (the forgotten man of the ATP tour) in 2017, the ATP Finals has finally produced two men who could carry the sport forward for the next few years.

On Sunday evening, Dominic Thiem will take on Daniil Medvedev for the biggest trophy outside the grand slam circuit. To get there, Thiem finally overcame Novak Djokovic 7-5, 6-7, 7-6, having come back from match points down, and Medvedev watched Rafa Nadal serve for the match at 5-4 in the second set (and then broke him to love) before winning 2-6, 7-6, 6-3. The current US Open champion will, then, play the man who came within inches of winning the US Open last year for the end-of-year jamboree.

Of all the young guns who have shoved their head above the parapet in recent years, Thiem and Medvedev have proved themselves to be the real McCoy. Zverev did well enough as a newbie in the Masters 1000s, winning three of them; Tsitsipas won in London last year but, as yet, has failed to win another title of note (he has reached two Masters 1000 final but has lost to Djokovic and Nadal when he got there). As for Dimitrov – he has a nice backhand.

But Medvedev and Thiem are different again.

Daniil Medvedev reacts after winning the second set against Rafael Nadal.

Coming into Saturday’s semi-final, Medvedev had never beaten Nadal yet he had come oh, so close in New York last summer. Back then, he was a winning machine and even if he did not walk away with the silverware every time, he reached six consecutive finals after Wimbledon (although his strike rate in those finals was 50 per cent). This year, life had not been so good until he got to Paris-Bercy. Then, at last, the giant awoke and squashed Zverev in the final to win his first trophy of the season. Now, in London, he has yet to be beaten.

As he did in Flushing Meadows last September, he took the fight to Nadal when he was in a tight corner and, over three sets, he was simply the better player.

“I think at the beginning of the match he was better than me,” Nadal said. “I was able to save my troubles with serves, but then I played well to have the break and then to close the set, no?

“In the second a little bit the same story at the beginning, but at the end of the set I was playing a little bit better than him, and then in the 5-4 I think he played a good game and I didn’t. I played a bad game. That’s it, no? But I had a big opportunity. I lost a big opportunity.”

So now Medvedev has to try and find a way to beat Thiem, the man who did him in straight sets at the US Open semi-finals a few weeks ago. Then again, that was before Medvedev rediscovered his winning formula. On the other hand, Thiem has won a grand slam title since that Friday encounter. But even grand slam champions make mistakes as Thiem found out in the first London semi-final.

Daniil Medvedev of delivers a speech for the ATP media after winning the game against Rafael Nadal.

As he traded blows with Novak Djokovic for the better part of three hours on Saturday afternoon, he came within touching distance of a place in the final. After an hour and 49 minutes, he was a set to the good and had a match point in the second set tiebreak. So far so good. And that was when it all started to unravel.

“I though that after my big final in New York, I was going to be more calm today,” he said. “That was a big mistake! I was just as nervous and tight today.”

Three more match points went begging as Thiem’s first serve deserted him and the world No.1 scented blood. Sure enough, he got the job done – eventually – but for about an hour after that first match point, it looked less and less likely.

As every player who has ever faced Djokovic in a big match has discovered: give the man so much as a millimetre and he will rip the whole world from you. And as the No.1 marched to a 4-0 lead in the third set tiebreak, it seemed that he had the world in the palm of his hand.

Thiem was now learning a very important lesson. “It was a mistake for myself to think that way, because I got so tight and nervous especially in those two match points where I served [in the second set]. The first one it was completely obvious that I’m going to serve a double fault because I was so tight. And also the other ones.”

And yet there is something remarkable about Thiem. Mark Petchey described it as “the courage of a fool”; others have called it the confidence of a champion. When the likeable Austrian is on the ropes, he does not defend, he attacks. He does not know the meaning of “damage limitation”. Petch, affable chap that he is, was by no means being derogatory when he made his observation; he was just marvelling at the guts and the nerve of the US Open champion.

Other, lesser men might rein in the power, opt for a little more margin of error when they were being pummelled. Not Dom. He has complete trust in his forehand (a shot that can split concrete) and utter belief in that fabulous one-handed backhand. Of course, he misses from time to time but when his future depends upon it, he puts every ounce of strength into those weapons and steps on to the front foot. When he does that, anything is possible and no cause is lost.

So it was that from 4-0 down, Thiem let rip. He won the next six points and earned himself another two match points with a backhand that tore straight through Djokovic. The best defender in the business could not get so much as a frame on the howitzer that skidded past him. The defender saved on match point with an ace but when it came to the sixth time of asking, Thiem was playing on a different level: massive serve, thundering forehand and…a Djokovic error sailing long and into the darkness of the empty O2 Arena. He had done it.

“What he did from 0-4 in the third-set tiebreaker was just unreal,” a still stunned Djokovic said. “He just crushed the ball. Everything went in from both corners, and he played couple of very short slices, you know, angles. I mean, what can you do? I was in a driver’s position at 4-Love. I thought, you know, I was very close to win it. He just took it away from me.

“When you hit full power and everything goes in, it just goes in. When you hit full power, sometimes it goes out. So simple.

“He did everything right from 0-4. I mean, I have to put my hats down and say, ‘Congratulations’. I actually didn’t play bad any point after 4-Love. I thought I was, every point, I was in it. I did hit the ball, I was not pushing it, but he just, yeah, he smashed it and he just played great.”

Djokovic shakes hand with Thiem.

For Thiem, the victory was his 300th career win and it was his fifth win against Djokovic. Against the Big Three, he only has a winning record over Roger Federer (he leads their rivalry 5-2) but he has now beaten each of the legends five times. Only Andy Murray has done that before and until his hip gave out, the Scot was part of that closed shop at the top of the rankings turning the Big Three into the Fab Four. Thiem’s fifth win over Djoko, then, was a massive achievement.

“Some things are super special about today’s victory,” Thiem said. “It was my 300th tour-level win, which is amazing to me. And then to beat every single of the three best players of all time five times each, it’s something great for me. Super nice statistics.

“But still, as I said after the match against Rafa, every single match against them is a huge privilege. It’s a huge opportunity to learn. Of course, if you beat these guys, it gives you a huge boost of confidence.”

Enough confidence to win the title? We will see on Sunday night.