Novak Djokovic, a five-time champion here, failed to reach the final Sunday of the ATP World Tour Finals for a record eighth time, as Dominic Thiem worked for nearly three hours on a brave but flawed victory over the world number one.
Djokovic saved four match points in the second set and led 4-0 in the third-set tie-break, but failed to hold off the Austrian in an absorbing rather than great semi-final at London’s O2 Arena.
Thiem’s 7-5, 6-7 (10), 7-6 (5) victory was the 300th of his career, and the reigning US Open champion will be tough to beat in Sunday’s final. “I was so on edge,” he said. “I am happy to be done. Whatever happens, we will have a winner for the first time. It will be the last game of a very tough year for everyone and we are going to try to put on a great show ”.
In a nervous opening, Djokovic was forced to hold on from love-30 four times in a row. The Austrian’s one-handed backhand – bigger, perhaps, than even Stan Wawrinka’s – was clicking ominously, and Djokovic needed his extra gears to stay with it. Five times into the turn he had to risk putting more muscle on his second serve, hitting 115 mph on the T to win the point.
Thiem, frustrated, threw his racket into the empty seats after the ninth game (and hit an ace for the first time with his replacement). Djokovic, kicked out of the US Open for a similar display of temperament in a packed Arthur Ashe stadium, could have excused himself with a wry smile.
Cracks appeared in Thiem’s game after 40 minutes when he double faulted and overcooked a forehand to fight through deuce a second time, but won a break point with a big winner in the 10th game, and Djokovic he obeyed by throwing a difficult low volley. Thiem advanced down the middle to take the first set.
A loving hug early in the second restored Djokovic’s composure, but Thiem is remarkably calm under pressure; in the US Open final in September, he went 2-2 in the fifth-set tie-break to frustrate Alexander Zverev.
There was little in the second set until the fifth game. “He doesn’t have that steely look,” former British number one Tim Henman observed in the BBC comment area as Djokovic saved the break point to keep it 3-2. “It’s a bit fragile.” However, Thiem couldn’t catch him. The reconnected Djokovic scored his first break point of the game after an hour and 22 minutes, but his forehand flew an inch long and Thiem ran away for the 4-all.
At 5-6, Thiem double faulted and hit long to give Djokovic two set points. He saved both, increasing his serve to 126 mph, and forced the tie-break after a series of shaky points.
Djokovic seemed to be affecting nonchalance as he swung his racket in the air, end to end, while waiting for Thiem’s serve, but he fired up to win four straight 4-2 points on the change of ends. Under great pressure, he saved four match points (one of them endowed with a double fault) and carried it to a third set when he smashed his opponent’s dreaded backhand on the baseline after two hours of nervous combat.
Djokovic had won 15 of 16 tiebreaks this year, a phenomenal comeback, and perked up when Thiem double-faulted at the start of the second penalty shoot-out. He led 4-0, but Thiem dug deep to go 5-4 up, with Djokovic serving. Thiem worked his way to his fifth and sixth match points, Djokovic saved one, but threw his last long balloon and was done.
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.