Following his win over Daniil Medvedev in the semifinals of the US Open, Dominic Thiem confessed that he didn’t like tiebreakers. But this evening, the 27-year-old Austrian navigated them well enough to earn the most intriguing of outcomes, a straight-sets nail-biter. Fighting off set points in each of the last two sets, Thiem scraped his way to a 6-2, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (5) victory and has now reached the finals in both of 2020’s majors.
“Tennis is all about small points,” said Medvedev. “Sometimes you win these points; sometimes you lose them.”
The tipping point of the first set was early and odd. Medvedev served at 2-3, ad out and hit a delivery that appeared long (as proven by a replay) but was called in. Certainly Medvedev thought it was out, as he made a minimal effort to field Thiem’s return – but was then informed it was too late to challenge the call and had lost the game to go down 4-2. Alas, yet another incident that makes the case for electronic line-calls on all courts.
Medvedev crossed the net to inspect the call and was instantly given a code violation by chair umpire Damien Dumusois. Dumusois was also in the chair a year ago in New York when Medvedev had rudely grabbed a towel from a ballperson and been issued a violation. Thiem suggested Medvedev be allowed to make a challenge, but that of course was meaningless.
In a sarcastic tone similar to the one he’d deployed during that match 12 months ago, Medvedev argued his case to Grand Slam supervisor Wayne McKewen, who reminded him that it was against the rules to cross the net.
“Sorry, I think I killed someone, right?” asked Medvedev. “Sorry, I was so bad to cross the net. Sorry, my apologies, my sincere apologies to the U.S. Open for crossing the net. Oh my God.” Medvedev pouted through the next two games and the first set was over, 6-2, in 35 minutes.
Anyone who has witnessed Medvedev knew the tantrum would end the minute the second set started. Medvedev took advantage of an early sag from the Austrian to break his serve, hold for a 2-0 lead, and continue to lay the groundwork for what at this stage seemed to be at least a four-setter.
The Medvedev game is worthy of an interdisciplinary study on the benefits of being underestimated. He is the lanky physics grad student who shows up at your local courts in high-top sneakers, awkwardly holding a dated frame. Politely asking if you would be so kind to hit tennis balls with him, Medvedev’s shots are often incredibly slow. The two-handed backhand appears solid, but the forehand looks goofy and some of your buddies have better volley technique. Then he queries delicately: Would you like to play a set? Sure, you think, might as well have a little fun with this oddball (let’s imagine him also wearing a long-sleeved, button-down shirt).
Ten minutes later, you are serving at 1-4, utterly bamboozled by this guy’s ability to handle anything you throw at him and propel the ball into all sorts of nooks and crannies. The serve is often quite hard, always deep. And what’s with those drop volley winners? As you shake hands, he apologizes for you playing so poorly.
As Rafael Nadal showed in last year’s amazing five-set US Open final, it takes an incredibly forceful contender to topple Medvedev. Enter Thiem, owner of a pleasing troika: grit, sizzling shots, tactical awareness. “I think if I play like his rhythm, I have no chance because he just doesn’t miss when I play with his rhythm,” said Thiem. “So I tried to destroy that a little bit with lot of slices, with also high balls with a lot of spin. That was what was the plan.”
With Medvedev serving in the second set at 5-4, 15-30, Thiem scampered to run down a short backhand volley and flicked a crosscourt forehand that Medvedev netted. Two points later, another Medvedev forehand lined the net to make it 5-all. In the next game, Medvedev held four break points, but each time the Austrian was the one that took charge, often with a big serve – as when he fought off a set point, serving at 5-6 in the second set tiebreaker.
Aficionados take delight in both the Thiem and the Medvedev backhand. But in so many rallies this evening, the forehand was the difference maker. Thiem broke the court open with his forehand in ways Medvedev rarely did. Two such forehands earned him the second set – versus an opponent who was 0-6 in five-setters.
As the third set began, Thiem was once broken in his opening service game. Prior to that set, he’d also gotten treatment on his right ankle, having fallen in the second set tiebreaker. When Medvedev held at love to go up 3-love, a fourth set again seemed likely.
Yet Thiem hung around just well enough. Serving at 1-4, 30-40, he clawed back to hold. Medvedev served at 5-3, but on set point at 40-30, shanked a forehand – yet another sign of the difference in each player’s skill on that flank. On break point, the two staged a captivating 38-shot rally, each dashing all over the court, in the end won by Thiem. Maybe it would finish in three sets after all.
That seemed likely once the tiebreaker ensued and Medvedev double-faulted at 0-3. Thiem served at 5-1, only to witness Medvedev creep up to net for a volley winner. This match really was vivid testimony to tennis being a form of physical chess. On the next point, Medvedev serving at 2-5, the Russian served-and-volleyed on his second serve and fended off a blistering Thiem crosscourt backhand return to poke a backhand touch volley winner. At 5-4, Thiem won a long rally with a searing backhand. Holding a match point on his own serve at 6-4, Thiem sprayed a forehand long. Medvedev served at 5-6, missed his first serve, but gave Thiem took hold of the rally long enough to elicit yet another Medvedev forehand that went into the net.
Said Medvedev, “I think it’s more in general he had a little bit of more, I don’t know how to call it, had a little bit more energy tonight maybe. Let’s call it a winning energy.”
Having now reached his fourth Grand Slam singles final, Thiem surely hopes to muster even more of that Sunday when he takes on his good mate, Alexander Zverev. Thiem has won seven of their nine matches, the most recent a 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (4) win in the semifinals of this year’s Australian. Considering Thiem’s dislike for tiebreakers, he’s won all four he’s played in the semifinals of majors this year.
“He’s also more than capable of winning that final,” said Thiem. “If it’s not going to happen on Sunday, well, I have to continue working and maybe get the chance at another slam. Well, the chance is now on Sunday. I’ll try everything to make it.”