The Last Time Djokovic, Thiem Played Before Australian Open Final
Editor's note: This story was published on 2 December 2019.
Continuing our Season In Review series, ATPTour.com looks at the six best ATP Tour matches in 2019. (The best Grand Slam matches will be featured Tuesday.)
6) Alexander Zverev d. Roger Federer, Rolex Shanghai Masters, Shanghai Quarter-finals, 11 October 2019 (Match Stats)
Alexander Zverev arrived at the Rolex Shanghai Masters without having made an ATP Masters 1000 semi-final all year. In the quarter-finals, he faced a tough test against two-time champion Roger Federer. But despite letting slip five match points in the second set, the German battled hard for a 6-3, 6-7(7), 6-3 victory against the 38-year-old Swiss, who had never previously lost a Shanghai quarter-final (5-1).
Zverev served for the match at 6-3, 6-5 40/0, but Federer raised his level, with two sensational volleys in particular helping him to win the next five points and then save two additional match points in the tie-break. But the German settled down and continued to play the aggressive tennis that earned him the lead in the first place, using that to triumph after two hours and four minutes. Zverev (4-3) joined Rafael Nadal (24-16) and Novak Djokovic (now 26-23) as the three active players with at least seven matches and a winning FedEx ATP Head2Head record against Federer.
“Obviously it was an important match. The head-to-head is obviously a great thing to have, but more importantly for me is it was a match to kind of maybe turn my year around a little bit,” Zverev said. “The [ATP] Race to London is also very important.”
Entering the week, Zverev was in eighth place in the Race, with his spot in the season finale still in doubt. But he used this match to move past Roberto Bautista Agut for seventh, and he’d end up qualifying for the Nitto ATP Finals for the third straight year, riding his renewed form to a spot in the London semi-finals to finish his season on a high note.
5) Novak Djokovic d. Juan Martin del Potro, Internazionali BNL d’Italia, Rome Quarter-finals, 17 May 2019 (Match Stats)
Rain washed out Wednesday action in Rome this year, meaning the players would need to win two matches on Thursday to reach the quarter-finals. Given it was only Juan Martin del Potro’s third tournament of the season as he continued his recovery from a knee injury, it seemed that would give the edge to World No. 1 Novak Djokovic for their clash in the last eight on Friday.
Djokovic had won the pair’s two past FedEx ATP Head2Head meetings in Rome and seven of their previous eight matches. But Del Potro came out swinging, giving the Serbian all he could handle. Djokovic needed to save two match points to navigate past the Argentine’s powerful best, triumphing 4-6, 7-6(6), 6-4 in the early hours of Saturday morning.
“[There was] luck in the decisive moments in the second set tie-break. He was playing really good. I tried my best obviously all the way till the end...He was playing really well. Gave me a lot of trouble,” Djokovic said. “But I never lost faith I could come back to the match."
This battle was a classic match of relentless offence against dogged defence, and it was Djokovic’s defence that prevailed after three hours and one minute. The Serbian went on to reach the final and the semi-finals at Roland Garros, while Del Potro only played two more tournaments the rest of the season, re-injuring his knee at the Fever-Tree Championships.
4) Stefanos Tsitsipas d. Dominic Thiem, Nitto ATP Finals, London Final, 17 November 2019 (Match Stats)
The championship match of the 2019 Nitto ATP Finals had a lot at stake for both Stefanos Tsitsipas and Dominic Thiem, with both men pursuing the biggest title of their career. But despite letting slip a break in the deciding set, it was Tsitsipas who triumphed one year on from claiming the Next Gen ATP Finals trophy in Milan, defeating the Austrian 6-7(6), 6-2, 7-6(4) after two hours and 35 minutes.
“It was pretty frustrating for me to be playing with such nerves for the first time in such a big event. I was a break up, I couldn’t manage to hold it,” Tsitsipas said. “Things were decided in the tie-break and I am so relieved by this outstanding performance and fight that I gave out on the court.”
Tsitsipas served as a hitting partner at the 2016 Nitto ATP Finals, at the time posting a picture on social media with Thiem, with whom he trained during the Austrian’s debut at the season finale. Just three years later, he lifted the trophy, becoming the fourth straight first-time champion at the event. He was also the first player since David Nalbandian in 2005 to recover from losing the opening set and claim the title.
“[The crowd support] is just phenomenal, having such an army behind me while I am on the court. They give me so much energy. They give me belief that I can achieve the things I want to achieve on the court.”
Tsitsipas’ biggest weapons had been his serve and forehand. But it was backhand that stood out against the big-hitting Thiem, as the Greek played more than a set of the match without missing a backhand, using that to turn things around.
3) Nick Kyrgios d. Stefanos Tsitspas, Citi Open, Washington, D.C. SF, 4 August 2019 (Match Stats)
When high-quality tennis and entertainment go hand-in-hand, the outcome is usually pretty special. And that was the case in Nick Kyrgios’ 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(7) win against Stefanos Tsitsipas in the Citi Open semi-finals.
Early in the match, everything the Aussie touched seemingly turned to gold, going for every shot you could think of, using his power to overwhelm the Greek. But even after dropping his level in the second set, Kyrgios regained his form, saving a match point at 5/6 in the final-set tie-break with a service winner and clinching the semi-final with a booming serve-and-forehand combo.
But while the tennis was memorable in itself, it was everything that went with it that made this one of the matches of the year. After finding an acute angle on a backhand drop volley in the first set, Kyrgios jogged several metres to the side of the court to fist bump some fans.
Later on, for the second straight match, Tsitsipas needed a shoe delivery in the middle of the match. And Kyrgios, who was waiting at the back of the court for the end of the changeover, willingly ran shoes from Apostolos Tsitsipas over to the top seed, getting down on one knee and holding them out as Tsitsipas cracked up in laughter.
The theatrics weren’t done just yet, as Kyrgios continued a trend he began earlier in the week by asking a fan where to serve on match point. Kyrgios improved to 4-1 against Top 10 players on the season, and he would go on to defeat Daniil Medvedev for his second ATP 500 title of the year.
“This week has been awesome. It's probably one of the best tournament weeks of my life. I've really enjoyed myself. D.C. has been a lot of fun. Crowds have been awesome,” Kyrgios said. “But I'm just doing the right things. I'm having the same routine every day. I'm trying to improve on a lot of little habits, and it's paying off. Five days in a row competing, I'm pretty happy with myself.”
2) Dominic Thiem d. Roger Federer, BNP Paribas Open, Indian Wells Final, 17 March 2019 (Match Stats)
Dominic Thiem got off to a slow start in 2019, losing four of his first seven matches, including two defeats on clay. The Austrian had never won an ATP Masters 1000 event, making both of his finals at that level on the clay of Madrid.
But that did not stop Thiem from playing some of the best tennis of his career in Indian Wells, defeating five-time champion Roger Federer 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 to win the BNP Paribas Open crown on hard courts.
“It feels just unreal what happened in these ten days during the tournament. I came from a really bad form in all categories, and now I'm the champion of Indian Wells. It feels not real at all,” Thiem said. “It was a great week, and I think also a very good final today. Just amazing that I got here, my first really big title.”
Thiem showed that when he is firing on all cylinders, he can succeed on any surface. Then 25, he used his power from the baseline and heavy spin to hit winners from all angles, totalling 24 in the match, increasing his level to top what was a strong effort from Federer, who had won 20 straight finals after claiming the first set.
“I'm not too disappointed. I feel like he had to come up with the goods, and it did feel like to some extent it was on my racquet,” Federer said. “[I] just came up against somebody who was on the day a bit better when it really mattered.”
Neither player gave up ground from the baseline, and Thiem saved a break point at 3-4 in the decider. Federer came within two points of victory at 5-4, as Thiem slipped and fell on the baseline, resulting in a bloody elbow. But the Austrian got out of trouble and chased down a couple of drop shots en route to his decisive break, ultimately leading to his biggest triumph.
1) Dominic Thiem d. Novak Djokovic, Nitto ATP Finals, London RR, 12 November 2019 (Match Stats)
Every match at the Nitto ATP Finals was critical for Novak Djokovic, as the Serbian was making a late push to secure the year-end No. 1 ATP Ranking for a record-tying sixth time. But Thiem put a dent in those plans, rallying from 1/4 down in a final-set tie-break to defeat Djokovic 6-7(5), 6-3, 7-6(5).
“Probably it was maybe the best match I ever played. It was a real classic and epic match which will happen from time to time at these big tournaments,” Thiem said. “It had everything what a match like this needs. He was up; I was up. He was playing amazing points. Me, I was playing amazing points. And then I think the match deserved an end in the third-set tiebreak.”
Thiem had won just one match in each of his first three visits to the Nitto ATP Finals. But this victory gave him back-to-back wins over Roger Federer and Djokovic to start his 2019 campaign at The O2, guaranteeing himself a spot in the semi-finals.
”This was really one of these special matches, what I’ve practised all my life for, all my childhood for,” Thiem said. “[It was a] really epic one in an amazing atmosphere, beating a legend of our game. And also I’ve qualified for the semi-finals, which is the best.”
This was the first time that Thiem defeated Djokovic on hard court, and it was due in large part to the 26-year-old raising his aggression to an incredibly high level. Djokovic has long proven himself one of the best defenders in the world, but even the Serbian’s speed and Gumby-like flexibility was not enough to match the Austrian’s onslaught.
“I thought he deserved to win. He just played very courageous tennis and [was] just smacking the ball. He went for broke,” Djokovic said. “The entire match he played same way he played the last point. I mean, I have to put my hat down and congratulate him, because he just played a great match.”
This victory forced Djokovic to defeat Federer in his final round-robin match to maintain his dreams of capturing year-end No. 1, but it was not to be for the Serbian, who fell to the Swiss in straight sets.