Rafael Nadal’s dream of a first ATP Finals title and Novak Djokovic’s quest for a sixth record vanished as they lost to Daniil Medvedev and Dominic Thiem in two seismic semi-finals on Saturday.
As the curtain falls on London’s 12 years as host of the prestigious TBEN season finale, it would have been fitting for Nadal and Djokovic to face each other for the 57th time in their brilliant careers. But times are changing, at least it seems, and Medvedev and Thiem hadn’t read the script.
Nadal, looking for the missing major pot in his vast collection of silverware, must have seen the door open when Thiem produced a stunning retaliation to beat Djokovic 7-5 6-7 (10) 7-6 (5) in a classic competition lasting nearly three hours.
He had beaten Medvedev in all three of their meetings, including a memorable US Open final last year.
He seemed to have exhausted the cunning Russian’s box of stuff when he served for the game at 5-4 in the second set but Medvedev, 10 years his junior at 24, came back strong to win 3-6 7-6 ( 4) 6-3. Whatever happens on Sunday, it will mean a fifth consecutive winner for the first time in the tournament.
“At 5-4 in the second set I decided to change some little things and start doing some more things. I had to change and it worked really well,” said Medvedev, who was at 100% in group play, including a win over Djokovic. To put Medvedev’s world number four victory in perspective, Nadal had triumphed in the last 71 matches where he won the first set.
“I played a bad game at 5-4, I had a big opportunity, but I played well against him,” Nadal said. Medvedev appeared the most likely winner as he took part in his service matches in the first set while Nadal worked. But the Spaniard jumped up as Medvedev suffered a momentary 3-4 dip and suddenly it was a set for good.
Undeterred, Medvedev continued to hammer and Nadal dove early in the second set, abandoning the serve with a double fault. Medvedev wasted a point for a 5-1 lead and paid the price as Nadal rushed to stand on the edge of victory.
Medvedev fell in love, however, and the whole thing went into a tiebreaker. Forehand winner Flukey helped Medvedev take a 5-3 lead and he remained calm to take it. Nadal slowed down under the relentless barrage of the third, but it was still a surprise to see him disappear in the end, losing the last three games as Medvedev made his way home.
Earlier in the empty arena, 27-year-old Thiem saw four match points go missing in the second-set tie-breaker against Djokovic, including one with a nervous double fault, and it looked like he would pay a heavy price. Djokovic, who is a short of Roger Federer’s title record in the ATP Finals, led 4-0 in the decisive tiebreaker.
But US Open champion Thiem unleashed an astonishing counterattack to bring home six points, hitting match point with a heartbreaking crosscourt backhand. Djokovic saved a fifth match point, but then threw up a long defensive forehand.
“What he did 0-4 in the tie-break was unreal,” Djokovic, who won the 2012-15 London title, told reporters. “He just crushed the ball and it all came in. What can you do?”
Thiem, who earned his 300th career Tour victory, is now established as a force majeure and will look to do better than last year when he lost to Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final. “From 0-4 to the third set tiebreak, I went for every shot and every shot went in. It was amazing,” he said.