© Ella Ling/ATP Tour

Novak Djokovic had a 4/0 lead in the final-set tie-break of his Nitto ATP Finals semi-final against Dominic Thiem, but the Austrian rallied to win.

Djokovic-Thiem Epic Tops ATP Tour Matches Of 2020

Medvedev and Nadal, who clashed in the other Nitto ATP Finals semi-final, ranks second on ATPTour.com's list

Continuing our review of the 2020 season, today we look at the top two ATP Tour matches of the year.

These two memorable clashes came just before the bell, with both being played on the penultimate day of the season in the semi-finals of the Nitto ATP Finals. The classics involved the top four players in the FedEx ATP Rankings, with two stars still on the rise taking out two all-time greats, potentially serving as a harbinger of 2021 and beyond.

2) Daniil Medvedev def. Rafael Nadal, Nitto ATP Finals, London, SF, 21 November 2020 (Match Stats)
When Rafael Nadal wins the first set, he’s like a train rolling downhill: There’s very little that can stop him.

Entering the semi-finals of this year’s Nitto ATP Finals against Daniil Medvedev, the Spaniard had won 71 consecutive matches after claiming the first set. Nadal took advantage of a sloppy Medvedev service game in the opener to cruise through the first set, putting him in prime position to earn a spot in the championship match as he sought his elusive first title at the season finale.

It wasn’t just that Nadal won the first set, but he appeared very much in control. The legendary lefty wasn’t thumping his way to victory as you’d expect — he was frustrating the Russian with his backhand slice and swooping into the net at every opportunity, often successfully. With a 3-0 ATP Head2Head record against Medvedev in hand and a break in the second set, his attempt at serving for the match at 5-4 in the second set seemed a foregone conclusion. But Nadal wasn't at his ruthless best, allowing Medvedev back on serve.

Nadal is one of the most intimidating players to face on the ATP Tour, but Medvedev held his ground on the baseline and changed his game plan. He was more aggressive and even snuck into net — which is atypical for him — with great success.

Medvedev’s tenacity lowered Nadal’s level in a 3-6, 7-6(4), 6-3 victory. The Russian pushed the train back up the hill and brought it to a halt.

"At the end of the [second] set I was playing a little bit better than him, and then in the 5-4 [game] I think he played a good game and I didn't. I played a bad game. That's it," Nadal said. "But I had a big opportunity. I lost a big opportunity. Well done to him.”

Medvedev rode that momentum into the championship match, in which he claimed the biggest title of his career. The 24-year-old became the first to defeat the top three players in the FedEx ATP Rankings at the Nitto ATP Finals, and it took a battle from the brink against Nadal to do it.

“To beat Rafa you need everything,” Medvedev said. “[You need a] good backhand, good forehand working this day. Mentally you need to be super strong, because he's there all the points.”

1) Dominic Thiem def. Novak Djokovic, Nitto ATP Finals, London, SF, 21 November 2020 (Match Stats)
After Dominic Thiem claimed his first Grand Slam title at this year’s US Open, the Austrian thought his nerves would settle in big moments. He had not only been to the doorstep of major success, but walked through it.

In the semi-finals of the Nitto ATP Finals, he learned that nerves never go away: “That was a mistake, I guess,” Thiem admitted. “I was just as tight and as nervous as before. It was so much on the edge.”

The pair's recent clashes set the bar high. In the 2019 Roland Garros semi-finals, Thiem needed more than four hours to beat Djokovic 7-5 in a fifth set. This February, they duelled in the Australian Open final, with Djokovic clawing his way to a victory. Now, a spot in the championship match of the season finale was on the line. Djokovic and Thiem were high-wire performers at The O2; two of the world’s best at their craft, putting it all on the line. 

Thiem once again came out swinging. Although there were no fans roaring to encourage the stars on Centre Court, the Austrian still went for it and tried to blow through the 36-time ATP Masters 1000 winner. The top seed, who was pursuing a record-tying sixth Nitto ATP Finals title and a punctuation mark to his stellar season, had to save four match points in the second set, including a forehand that landed right on the line. Djokovic was no longer walking on a high-wire but trying to balance while pedalling on it with a unicycle.

For the second consecutive year, Djokovic and Thiem battled into a final-set tie-break at The O2. In 2019, Thiem upended Djokovic, but that was in round-robin play. This time, to eliminate the Serbian from the tournament, he would need to hold his nerve after a gutting second-set loss.

Despite trailing 0/4 in the tie-break, Thiem gripped his racquet hard and went for it, winning seven of the final eight points for an impressive 7-5, 6-7(10), 7-6(5) victory. Djokovic in no way lost the match; Thiem took it from him.

“From 0/4 in the third-set tie-break I went for every single shot and every single shot went in,” Thiem said. “It was amazing, and it's not going to be like that in every match I play.”

“I have to put my hat down and say, congratulations,” Djokovic said. “I actually didn't play bad any point after 4/0. I thought [in] every point, I was in it. I did hit the ball, I was not pushing it, but he just smashed it and he just played great.”

With his fifth win against Djokovic (5-7), Thiem joined Andy Murray as the only players to beat each member of the Big Three on five or more occasions. He was unable to claim the title, losing against Medvedev, but he helped create a classic match that will live on in fans’ memories for years to come.

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