Thiem v Djokovic: Will King Novak Stand Or Fall?
Austrian to continue his assault on dominance of Big Three
Dominic Thiem’s siege on tennis royalty — the Big Three — started six years ago, when he entered the Top 50 and has been in high gear since at least 2016, when he broke into the Top 10. Nearly all of this time, he’s been firing arrows at the three kings, causing damage here and inflicting some pain there. But for the most part, his ascent of tennis’ Mt. Everest has been slow going, as tennis’ ruling class has held its ground.
With the world’s top four ranked players, who own the past 10 majors, clashing Saturday, the results will offer us some clues into what’s been perhaps the slowest-moving tennis story of all time.
For years now, tennis’ smart set have been writing ‘changing of the guard’ stories that now look like premature Big Three tennis obituaries. This summer, Thiem broke through with his first major, winning the US Open. But he didn’t have to beat the three kings and thus the question remains: When will it be the Thieminator’s time? A first title at the Nitto ATP Finals could be the start of the long-awaited generational power shift, but another loss will make tennis fans question if the end of the Big Three’s reign is anywhere in sight.
After booking his passage into the semi-finals with a win over Alexander Zverev Friday, the Serbian king spoke of Thiem’s noble quest.
“Obviously [the US Open title] was a huge boost for him,” Djokovic said. “[He] got that kind of pressure and expectation off his back. So I'm sure that allows him to kind of also swing freely on the court and play even better than he did before.”
Djokovic has beaten Thiem in seven of their 11 ATP Head2Head clashes, but the first five — all decisive wins for the Serb from 2014-’17 — are ancient history at this point as Thiem is a much better player. The Austrian has won two of their past three encounters, including one in a third-set tie-break last year at this event. All three of these affairs were popcorn matches, brutal for the players but a delight for the fans.
The cross-generational rivalry really took flight in the semi-final of Roland Garros last year. It took four hours and 13 minutes for the Thieminator to outlast the indomitable Serb, 7-5 in the fifth set. It was a huge win because it was exactly the sort of match that Nole typically finds a way to win.
Thiem took another step forward, foiling the Belgrade-born Serb at last year’s Nitto ATP Finals, where he came back from 1/4 down in the third-set tie-break, clinching a semi-final berth in the process. Djokovic spoke of Thiem as though he was a noble warrior after that match, saluting him for playing “courageous tennis” and for “going for broke”. The Austrian said the match was “what I’ve practised all my life for, all my childhood for.”
Djokovic was asked, once more, about his rivalry with Thiem and that loss Friday.
“I have lots of respect for Dominic and his game and his work ethic,” said Djokovic, 33, who owns 17 major titles. “Every time we got to play I think in the last three, four matches, it was some marathon, thrilling encounters… It's semi-finals, so I'm expecting a tough battle, no question about it. He's in a very good form. He loves to play on this surface. Obviously, he played the final last year. He beat Roger and myself last year at The O2. He's a Grand Slam champion.”
Tsistipas beat Thiem to win the title at The O2 last year in a third-set tie-break and talk in the sport, once again, was of generational change — the new guys slaying the Big Three dragons. But then Djokovic said “not so fast, kids” with a three-hour, 59-minute, five-set win over Thiem in the final of this year’s Australian Open. Thiem prevailed at the US Open in September, but Nadal won his 13th title at Roland Garros to highlight the Big Three’s long-term dominance at the majors.
The Thieminator isn’t Next Gen, nor is he Old Guard. At 27, he’s in his prime. Novak has carried the No. 1 position in the FedEx ATP Rankings around the world, guarding it the way a knight protects his finest suit of armour. Thiem can’t overtake Djokovic with a win Saturday, but he can chip away and solidify the fact that he’s no one-hit wonder after his US Open triumph. For his part, a win for Novak will bring him one victory away from equalling Roger Federer’s mark of six Nitto ATP Finals titles.
Thiem said after his win over Nadal this week that he’s playing even better here than he was at the US Open. Djokovic agrees, but still sees himself as the man to beat, tennis’ Baron of Belgrade, Sultan of Sweat, Kaiser of Kopaonik, and Holy Serbian Emperor all in one.
“You know, if I manage to play as well as I did today, and show up with a high quality of tennis, I think I have a good chance to win.”
Who’s the favourite? That depends on what side of the fortress you’re watching the match from.