Dominic Thiem’s seat on tennis royalty – the Big Three – began six years ago, when he entered the Top 50 and had been in high gear since at least 2016, when he broke into the Top 10. Most of this time he’s been shooting. arrows at the three kings, causing damage here and inflicting pain there. But for the most part, his ascent from tennis’ Mt. Everest was slow because the tennis ruling class held on.
With the world’s four best players, who own the last 10 majors, facing off on Saturday, the results will offer us clues to what may have been the slowest tennis history of all time.
For years, the smart game of tennis has been writing “changing of the guard” stories that now sound like premature Big Three obituaries. This summer, Thiem broke through with his first major when he won the US Open. But he didn’t have to beat the Three Kings and so the question remains: when will it be the time of the Thieminator? A first Nitto ATP Finals title could be the start of the long-awaited generational power shift, but another loss will make tennis fans wonder if the end of the Big Three’s reign is in sight.
After booking his passage in the semi-finals with a victory over Alexander Zverev on Friday, the Serbian king spoke of Thiem’s noble quest.
“Obviously [the US Open title] has been a huge boost for him, ”said Djokovic. “[He] had that kind of pressure and expectations on his back. So I’m sure it allows him to swing freely on the pitch and play even better than before.
Djokovic has beaten Thiem in seven of his 11 ATP Head2Head clashes, but the top five – all decisive wins for the Serbian from 2014 to 2017 – are history at this point as Thiem is a much better player. The Austrian has won two of his last three encounters, including one in a third set tie-break last year at this event. These three cases were popcorn matches, brutal for the players but a delight for the fans.
The intergenerational rivalry really took off in the semi-finals of Roland Garros last year. It took the Thieminator four hours and 13 minutes to outlast the indomitable Serbian, 7-5 in the fifth set. It was a huge win because it was exactly the kind of game that Nole usually finds a way to win.
Thiem took another step forward, outwitting the Belgrade-born Serbian in last year’s Nitto ATP Finals, where he fell 1/4 in the third set tie-break, securing a place in the semi-finals in the process. Djokovic spoke of Thiem as if he was a noble warrior after this match, hailing him for playing “brave tennis” and for “going bankrupt”. The Austrian said the match was “what I have practiced for all my life, all my childhood.”
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Djokovic was asked, once again, about his rivalry with Thiem and the loss on Friday.
“I have a lot of respect for Dominic, his game and his work ethic,” said Djokovic, 33, who holds 17 major titles. “Every time we’ve played, I think in the last three, four matches it was a marathon, some exciting encounters… It’s semi-finals, so I’m expecting a tough battle, no doubt about it. this subject. He is in very good shape. He loves to play on this surface. Obviously, he played the final last year. He beat Roger and myself last year at the O2. He’s a Grand Slam champion.
Tsistipas beat Thiem to win the title at the O2 last year in a third set tie-break and speaking in the sport, once again, was a generational change – with the new guys killing the Big Three Dragons. But then Djokovic declared “not so fast kids” with a three hours, 59 minutes and five sets victory over Thiem in this year’s Australian Open final. Thiem won the US Open in September, but Nadal won his 13th title at Roland Garros to underscore the Big Three’s long-term dominance at the majors.
The Thieminator is not Next Gen, nor Old Guard. At 27, he is in the prime of his life. Novak held the top spot in the FedEx ATP rankings around the world, keeping her like a knight protects his finest armor. Thiem can’t pass Djokovic with a win on Saturday, but he can miss and consolidate the fact that he’s not a one-shot wonder after his US Open triumph. For his part, a victory for Novak will bring him a victory far from equaling Roger Federer’s mark of six Nitto ATP Finals titles.
Thiem said after his win over Nadal this week he was playing even better here than he was at the US Open. Djokovic agrees, but still sees himself as the man to beat, the Belgrade tennis baron, the sweat sultan, the Kopaonik emperor and the holy emperor of Serbia all rolled into one.
“You know, if I can play as well as I do today and come in with high quality tennis, I think I have a good chance of winning.
Who is the favorite? It depends on which side of the fortress you are watching the game.