Five-time champion here Novak Djokovic failed to reach the closing Sunday of the ATP World Tour final for a record-breaking eighth time, as Dominic Thiem worked for nearly three hours in a serious victory but imperfect against the world No. 1.
Djokovic saved four match points in the second set and led 4-0 in the third set tie-break, but couldn’t keep the Austrian at bay in an exciting rather than formidable semi-final here in London.
Thiem’s 7-5, 6-7 (10), 7-6 (5) win was the 300th of his career and the defending US Open champion will be tough to beat in the final. “It was so borderline,” he says. “I’m just happy to pass. Whatever happens, we will have a winner for the first time.
“It will be the last game of a very difficult year for everyone and we will try to put on a great show.”
In a nervous opening, Djokovic was forced to hold 0-30 four times in a row. The Austrian’s one-handed backhand – perhaps bigger than Stan Wawrinka’s – clicked ominously, and Djokovic needed his extra gears to stay with him. Five times on the spin, he had to risk putting more muscle on his second serve, hitting up to 115 mph down the T to earn the point.
Frustrated Thiem threw his racquet into the empty seats after Game 9 (and hit an ace for the first time with his replacement). Djokovic, sent off from the US Open for a similar display of anger in a crowded Arthur Ashe stadium, could have been excused with a wry smile.
Cracks appeared in Thiem’s game after 40 minutes when he double faulted and overcooked a forehand to fight a second time, but he won a break point with a cracking winner in Game 10, and Djokovic obliged by throwing a difficult low volley. . Thiem went down to the middle to win the first set.
A lovemaking early in the second restored Djokovic’s composure, but Thiem is remarkably cool under the pressure; in the US Open final in September, he came back 0-2 in the fifth set tie-break to frustrate Alexander Zverev.
There was little in the second set until the fifth game. “He doesn’t have that steely look in his eyes,” Tim Henman observed in the BBC’s comment box as Djokovic saved the breaking point to hold for 3-2. “He’s a bit fragile.
Yet Thiem couldn’t nail him. The re-engaged Djokovic got his first break point after an hour and 22 minutes, but his forehand flew an inch long and Thiem escaped for 4-4.
Serving 5-6, Thiem double faulted and hit long to give Djokovic two set points. He saved both, increasing his serve to 126 mph, and forced the tie-break after a shaky run of points.
Djokovic seemed to affect nonchalance as he spun his racquet in the air, end to end, waiting for Thiem’s serve, but he managed to earn four straight points for 4-2 on the end change.
Under serious pressure, he saved four match points – one of which was gifted with a double fault – and took it to a third set by crushing his opponent’s dreaded backhand on the baseline after two hours angry fight.
Djokovic had won 15 of 16 tiebreakers this year, a phenomenal comeback, and was reinvigorated when Thiem double faulted at the start of the second shootout. He was leading 4-0, but Thiem dug deep to go 5-4, with Djokovic on serve. Thiem made his way to his fifth and sixth match points, Djokovic saved one but hit his last long lob and it was done.