Thank God it’s Thiem-Medvedev and not Djokovic-Nadal in the final at the ATP Finals this year. Perhaps 2021 will be the year to ring in the much awaited change of guard in men’s tennis. Thiem thwarted Novak’s bid to equal Federer’s record, and Medvedev botched Rafa’s dream of winning his first ATP Finals.
Thiem versus DJokovic
Dominic Thiem, as predicted, was the better player for most part of the match except many of the crucial points therein. He won the first 7-5 but frittered away a 4 point lead in the second set tie-break because of a mental choke. A double fault and a half-hearted forehand miss emboldened Djokovic to mount a comeback in the second. Losing the mental edge has cost Thiem quite a few against Djokovic in the past, and he came close to losing this too. “I was mentally not that strong,” Dominic said in the post match interview. “I was so tight in my whole body.”
But Thiem mustered the courage to unleash the tennis needed to win from 0-4 down in the third set tie-break. He let loose his best aggressive tennis to reel off 6 brilliant points, and deny Novak a shot at his sixth here. Djokovic’s defense was ineffective to hold back Dominic’s aggression.
“What he did from 0-4 in the third-set tie-breaker was just unreal,” Djokovic said. “I don’t think I played bad. I made all first serves, he just crushed the ball. Everything went in from both corners. I thought I was in the driver’s position. He just took it away from me. But he deserved it.”
Djokovic ends with a 41-5 record for the year, and Thiem improved to 5-7, winning 5 of the last 7, against Novak.
Nadal versus Medvedev
It wasn’t easy, but Medvedev finally broke the code to beat Nadal for the first time in four meetings. The three sets 3-6, 7-6, 6-3 tussle marked one of Nadal’s rare losses after winning the first set. The Russian makes final with a 100% win record at the event this year. He took out Novak and Zverev in straight in the round-robin stages earlier.
Daniil was the better player even in the first, which he lost because of a lapse in one of the service games. Medvedev, like in 2019, was about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by going down from 4-1 up to 5-4 down in the second. In 2019 Medvedev lost to Nadal from 5-1 up in the third. With the win, Daniil braved not only Rafa but also the ghosts of their 2019 meeting here.
“I felt really strange until 5-4 for him in the second set, when he was serving for the match,” said Daniil who was 0-3 at the year-end ATP Finals until this year.
“It felt like I was doing great shots but there was no link in my game and that was why I was losing. He was better in the important moments. I couldn’t return in the important moments, I couldn’t make a good shot in the important moments.
“I decided to change some small things. Just being closer, going for it a little bit more. I felt like I had the chances to win before some games, a set maybe, but it didn’t work, so I had to change and it worked really well. I am really happy about it.”
Medvedev, with a convincing victory over Djokovic and Nadal, moves confidently into the final for a face-off against Thiem.
The implications of Thiem-Medvedev and not Djokovic-Nadal
Thiem’s and Medvedev’s beat-down of Djokovic and Nadal is significant because of how the matches were won. Both actually beat their mental demons to score the wins. Daniil had never beaten Nadal and Thiem had lost too many, because of mental let downs, to Djokovic before. And, each, moreover, beat both – Nadal and Djokovic – to make the final this year!
Thiem enjoys a 3-1 advantage in the rivalry. He has subdued Medvedev on the clay and indoor and outdoor hard courts. Dominic last overcame Daniil at the 2020 US Open in straight, but tightly contested, sets. The surface here suit the flatter ground shots of Medvedev slightly more than Thiem’s. But Thiem really wants to go one better than his runner up performance of 2019. Both appear somewhat equally matched in ground-shots. Thiem has a little more variety and Daniil possesses flatter power in his ground shots. Both can crank up the mileage on the service when needed and go toe-to-toe, with the other, in baseline exchanges.
Conclusion: Does it even matter who wins? We should be happy that it isn’t Nadal versus Djokovic, and hope this puts an end to the dominance of the Big Three.