Two titans of tennis locked horns on Tuesday night, putting on one of the most tantalizing displays we have seen this year.
It took two tiebreaks to settle the match, with world No.3 Dominic Thiem dominating his opposer, Rafael Nadal, in straight sets to win 6(7)-7(9) 6(4)-7(7).
“In every aspect, this game has just been world-class” Amazon broadcaster Robbie Koening said, seemingly as mesmerized as we were at the display that simply oozed quality.
Entering the O2 arena, the U.S. and French Open champions rather fittingly walked out to a remix of Carrie Underwood’s “The Champion,” perhaps a foresight by tournament organizers of who could be walking away with the ATP Tour Finals trophy this weekend.
We were anticipating a tight contest going into the match, with 5 of the last 6 sets the pair have played going to a tie break.
And it looked as though it would go that way again, with neither player able to take a foothold in the match during the early exchanges.
Thiem has bested the world No.2 twice already this year on the hard surface, won a very similar two-set tie-breaker showdown in Finland and again in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open back in January.
Nadal, who is yet to win the ATP Finals, opted to serve first and showed glimpses of his 2010 self, hitting a couple of darts at Thiem that clocked just under 130mph.
While Nadal belted shots at Thiem, the Austrian slowly grew into the game showing off his full armory of skills and used his intelligence to react and defend against Nadal’s lightning service and punishing forehand.
Bringing the best out of each other through some seriously pleasing rallys in the first set, Thiem produced a moment of magic at 6-5, clambering to the back of the court to hit a jaw-dropping shot from between his legs that even looked like it wowed Nadal on the other side of the net.
But after an hour of tennis and 12 games of thrilling action, nothing could separate the pair and the set went to a tiebreak.
At 5-2, Nadal looked to have the first set sewn up, but the world No.3 showed his resilience to defend Nadal’s attacks to come back to break Nadal twice to win the set.
Delivering a clinical forehand that, despite all his skill, Rafael Nadal had no hope of rescuing, it was Thiem’s courage to pursue the killer shots that saw him secure the win against his opponent.
“Actually I was pretty lucky to get that first set when I was 2-5 down in the tiebreak,” Thiem admitted after the match.
The second set started much like the first with both players continuing to exchange the lead, right up until Nadal turned the tide in the 6th game.
Using his experience to predict where Thiem would place his forehand, Nadal exploited the positioning of the 27-year-old, moving to collect Thiem’s forehand and smash a backhand into the space the Austrian had just moved from winning the point to gain the first break of the match.
But the pressure got to Nadal, and the U.S. Open champion collected himself and struck back straight away to break Nadal’s serve, hitting a sniping shot down the line to crucially bring himself back into the game.
Thiem surged on and almost looked as though he had the match tied up but for Nadal’s escapist resilience, coming back from 40-love down to rescue 3-match points from the Austrian to turn the tide and win the game.
The match went to its second tie-break and we saw in the final passage of play what Dominic Thiem is really made of, courageously taking Nadal head-on, belting his trademark forehand across the court to win the set and the match.
“I think today I played at a higher level than I did at the U.S. Open,” Thiem said after the match.
“Against Rafa it’s nice to win the first set obviously but still he’s there 100 percent from the first to the last point so I knew that maybe I have a slight advantage but still, I had to stay super focused.”
There was a lot to be admired on both sides of the net with both players reaching another level in their games and Nadal conceded afterward that it was simply a great match of tennis decided (by) a few small details.”
Thiem will now go top of group London and looks a shoe in to qualify for the semi-finals.
Featured Image: 2016-11-13_ATPFinals2 by Ungry Young Man // https://www.flickr.com/photos/14385354@N00/25330111239 // Licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Download permissions