Dominic Thiem and Rafael Nadal put on a show of the highest quality in a near-empty O2 Arena as Thiem edged closer to the semi-finals with a straight sets win.
Thiem, the world No. 3 from Austria with a gorgeous one-handed backhand, has firmly established himself as the best player outside of dominant duo Nadal and Novak Djokovic – and he could even finish this season finished ranked higher than his beaten opponent.
If he beats Andrey Rublev next and goes on to win the title and Nadal is beaten by Stefanos Tsitsipas on Thursday, he will climb to a career-high ranking. It’d be hard to argue against him leapfrogging Nadal.
This was Thiem, the US Open champion, at his very best. He and Nadal – who was also excellent – traded blows from the back of the court, but the Austrian held his nerve better in bigger moments to secure a famous 7-6 (9-7) 7-6 (7-4) win after two hours and 26 minutes.
He is now one of two players, along with Alexander Zverev, to beat all three of Roger Federer, Djokovic and Nadal at the ATP Finals. If Tsitsipas beats Rublev on Tuesday night, he will qualify for the semi-finals.
With the tournament moving to Turin next year, there had been a disappointingly flat feel to this event due to a lack of fans allowed into the stadium.
But these giants of the sport didn’t need supporters to energise them in a breathtaking spectacle. Of course, one can only imagine how the O2 would have erupted had they been allowed in.
Thiem said after the match: ‘I think it was a great match from the first to the last point.
‘Actually I was pretty lucky to get that first set. Against Rafa it’s nice to win the first set obviously but he’s there 100% from the first to the last point.
‘I knew I had a slight advantage when I won the first set but still I had to stay super focussed. All eight players here are in great shape both physically and mentally so we’re going to see a lot of close matches.
Crowd or no crowd, there was no denying this was tennis of a staggeringly high level.
Both were cracking the ball with their usual ferocity, covering the court with sheer athletic excellence, combining heavy groundstrokes with deft touches. There wasn’t a spot of the court left untouched.
In the first set, neither faced a break point. A tiebreak was required to settle the score.
It didn’t fail to deliver. Nadal moved in front after a Thiem drop-shot cruelly flicked off the net and out of play on his way to a 5-2 lead.
Remarkably unflustered, Thiem clawed his way back but then gifted the world No. 2 a first set point as he double faulted.
His returning during the first set had reached astonishing heights that it was perhaps no surprise to see him save it and then a second set point before clinching one of his own to move in front after 72 minutes.
Both men left the court for a toilet break after the exhausting opener and the first break point of the match came in the first game of the second set.
Thiem, remarkably unflappable, crushed an inside-out forehand winner to save it and held.
Six games later, Nadal crafted another break point and this time read Thiem’s inside-out forehand and diverted it back up the line to move 4-3 up.
Thiem hit straight back and looked to have the match sewn up as he moved 0-40 up on the Nadal serve, with three match points.
Few players, though, have fought as hard as Nadal during their careers and he dug deep to hold.
In the next game, he appeared to complain to umpire Mohammed Lahyani about the electronic line calling system as a Thiem serve was adjudged to have aced him when he felt it had gone wide.
Still, the second seed forced another tiebreak. But it was Thiem, again, who clinched it along with a famous victory.
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