LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 17: Dominic Thiem of Austria celebrates during his match against Rafael Nadal of Spain during Day 3 of the Nitto ATP World Tour Finals at The O2 Arena on November 17, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by TPN/Getty Images)
LONDON, UK – Dominic Thiem set the tournament alight with a thrilling win over Rafael Nadal, and defending champion Stefanos Tsitsipas ended Andrey Rublev‘s hopes of advancing.
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Dominic Thiem  def. Rafael Nadal  7-6(7), 7-6(4)
This was already being billed as one of the best match-ups of the tournament so far, and it did not disappoint. With both Dominic Thiem and Rafael Nadalarriving at the tournament probably the freshest they have been in a long while, the level of intensity in just the first set was insane.
The aggressive pummelling from Thiem and the cagey gets from Nadal saw no break point chances whatsoever for either player in the first set, and in the tie-break, it looked as though Nadal had just managed to get the upper hand, finding effectiveness in drawing Thiem out wide and then drilling home a winner in the open court.
Not for the first time this week, Thiem hit through the court and Nadal coming back from a 2-5 deficit to spin things back his way as he clinched the tie-breaker.
There was a glimmer of hope as Nadal brought up the first break point of the match but could not convert it. But was rewarded for his persistence with the first break of the match. There was no drop in Thiem’s intensity through, breaking back immediately to get things back on level terms.
Three match points came and went for Thiem, with Nadal hanging on to force a second set tie-break. This time there was no need to mount a Houdini-esque comeback as Thiem edged ahead and finished it all off with a mini-break.
Thiem has now won five tie-breaks in a row against Nadal in tie-breaks this year, beating Nadal back-to-back for the first time in his career.
Thiem said, after the match: “Even though Rafa is like 100% from the first to the last point, it’s very, very important to get that first set against him, because the winning percentage he has after winning the first set is incredible and almost impossible to beat him after losing the first set.
“I was lucky and happy to get that first one in the tiebreak. And then second set I think had everything. Got the first break and then played probably the best game of the match to make the re-break, and then again another good tiebreak. Was a great match which I will remember for a long time.”
Nadal had praise for the man who we often termed as the Prince of Clay, who has graduated to become a Slam champion on a hard court.
He said: “He played well. I had my chances. I missed a little bit in the tiebreak when I had the advantage. I did I think all the things well during the match. Just the only negative thing I was not able to convert some kind of key points that makes the biggest difference in the whole match.
“My feeling is not negative. Of course, sad for the loss, but at the same time, happy for Dominic that he played a great match. I hope to have my chances. I think I am much more confident now with the level of tennis that I am playing than a couple of days ago. So I just have the chance to keep going, and that’s what I gonna do.”
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As much as there is prestige in making it to the top eight for the season-ending finale, there is often as much jeopardy that comes with that achievement. For Andrey Rublev, being summarily dismantled in a Nadal masterclass will not have done anything for the confidence.
After what seemed like a farcical practice session where the Russian raged against his racquets and barely had a 15 minute warm-up, it did not auger well for the start if the match, as defending champion Stefanos Tsitsipas came out firing and ripped through the first set in just 19 minutes for the loss of just one game.
Mercifully Rublev managed to gather up his straying wits to make a far more competitive match of it, living up to his billing as the ATP Tour best with five titles and 40 wins in 2020.
With the match into a decider at a break-neck pace, Rublev battled for close to 10 minutes, fending off five break points to hang in the fight. With longer rallies beginning to take shape, the match still very much felt like it would be dependent on the consistency of Rublev’s serving.
With the deciding set going to a tie-break, Tsitsipas saw his breathing space at 5-2 gradually get whittled away to serve at 5-5. A double fault on match-point put Tsitsipas back in the game and the match-point momentum swung back to the defending champion, who rode the rollercoaster to the end of the ride.
It was a brave fight for Rublev, who in part redeemed himself after a tough first round, and a difficult first set. Now relegated and facing Thiem next, he still had a lot to feel proud of.
“This year I win more tournaments than in my career. I win more matches than in my career. So I’m the one who cannot complain. I can be only grateful for the season. I become top 10 for the first time. The season was amazing for me.
“It’s great experience, because this event give you chances to play against the best players, and you have to use all of them. Doesn’t matter even if I’m already out, still I have to play my maximum, because in the end it’s best players and I need to perform my best.”
Tsitsipas will have to face Nadal, and in his on-court interview reckoned his experience had seen him through that tense third set.
He explained, after the match: “Experience is something that is not really like when it has to do with a skill. Also mostly with your mind and the way you tend to take risks and go for things. But it means like you have tried and failed in the past, and you learn from that and move forward. It’s just being brave and using your braveness through your experience.”
Play continues on Day Four of the Nitto ATP Finals on Wednesday at 12pm (GMT).
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