ATP Finals 2019: Dominic Thiem sheds tag of 'clay-court specialist', showcases evolution in tough three-sets win over Novak Djokovic

Musab Abid

For the last four years, the memory of Stan Wawrinka's win over Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros 2015 has been haunting tennis fans all over the world. But haunting in a good way; we've all been looking for a repeat of that barn-burning performance, a reminder that that kind of unbridled power-hitting can actually exist.

For four years now we've had hazy visions of Wawrinka hitting winner after winner past a helpless Djokovic, accompanied by a "did that really happen?" thought bubble.

The setting of the round-robin match between Djokovic and Dominic Thiem at the ATP Finals wasn't even remotely similar to that red-letter day from 2015. That day it was a sunny and warm afternoon in Paris, yesterday was a cold indoor evening in London. It was best-of-five sets against best-of-three, slow clay vs quick hardcourt, Slam final as opposed to round-robin match that wasn't even a knockout.

But there were two things that were unmistakably identical: the presence of one of the greatest defenders the world has ever seen on one side of the net, and the wrath of Thor on the other.

Those who didn't watch the Thiem vs Djokovic match will probably reference it years from now and mention the stats €" 51 winners from Thiem €" to describe how he outhit Djokovic. But those who did watch it will hear the 'thud' of Thiem's thunderbolts in their head every time the match is mentioned and struggle to find the words that could do adequate justice to what transpired on the night.

Dominic Thiem plays a backhand against Novak Djokovic during their match at the ATP Finals 2019. AP

Dominic Thiem plays a backhand against Novak Djokovic during their match at the ATP Finals 2019. AP

"I don't think I have experienced too many matches like this where my opponent just goes for every single shot," Djokovic said later. "He was unbelievable, and in some stages, it was just incredible that he was just literally smacking the ball as hard as he could and it was going in."

Djokovic would know just how incredible it was; he had the best seat in the house while the madness was going on. Right from his first service game of the match, Thiem was in a zone that defied everything we thought we knew about tennis. Taking the ball from the baseline or just a foot behind it, the Austrian seemed hell-bent on hitting the cover off the ball with every swing €" and he somehow kept landing his shots in.

That bit about standing at the baseline or just behind it is particularly instructive to learn how Thiem managed to win on a surface that is supposed to be his worst. Thiem has long been considered a claycourt specialist, and his results did little to prove otherwise; for all of his breathtaking exploits on the dirt, he had never won more than one match at the season-ending ATP Finals, held on indoor hardcourt.

Thiem had made it a habit of qualifying for London, and also of exiting before the semifinals.

But the winds of change first appeared at last year's US Open, where Thiem famously bagelled Rafael Nadal before losing in five electric sets. He has been building on that performance ever since, and his titles in Beijing and Vienna this fall indicated he was on the path to shedding his clay-courter label for good.

All through this journey, his improved backhand slice and willingness to stand closer to the baseline have been starkly evident, and yesterday in London, Djokovic bore the brunt of all the buildup.

"I know that he can play at a high level, but tonight was just phenomenal," Djokovic said, sounding just as much in awe as the rest of us. "I have played him before. I know his game. But what he did tonight was out of the ordinary."

It was the combination of all the different improvements in Thiem's game that probably befuddled Djokovic. The 26-year-old pounded his forehand every chance he got to tee off, but he also stood his ground when stretched wide €" instead of retreating back as he used to. His slice got him out of trouble innumerable times, staying low enough to prevent Djokovic from retaining control. And he also hit his topspin crosscourt backhand with pace and depth, which helped him get back to neutral positions even when the Serb was on the attack.

But the most significant (and stunning) tool of all, was Thiem's down-the-line backhand. He could do no wrong with that shot on the night; breaking open rallies with his sudden direction changes, Thiem took the racquet out of Djokovic's hands in a way that very few in history have been able to.

"(He) flattened it out, the backhand down the line. He didn't miss too many backhands down the line, really. It was amazing," Djokovic said. It's impossible to disagree that it was indeed amazing.

Thiem looked like the better player towards the end of the first set, but he hit one titanic forehand too many in the tiebreaker. The one he overcooked at 5-5 was enough to hand the set to Djokovic, and at that point, many thought the Serb had seen off the danger.

But Thiem didn't back down despite that disappointment, and in the second set he opened up his shoulders even more €" if that was even possible.

By the middle of the match, he was hitting winners past Djokovic at will, off both the forehand and the backhand. His serve reached a different level too, especially the second; even a GOAT returner like Djokovic couldn't get enough deep returns in to put the Austrian under pressure.

When Thiem broke to start the third set, he looked firmly on course to register his first win over Djokovic on hardcourt. But the Serb, a proven master at weathering the wildest storms imaginable, was not done yet. He clawed his way back with some otherworldly defence, breaking back at 2-3 and again at 5-6 to take the match to a tiebreaker.

Despite all the jaw-dropping tennis that had been displayed in the 2.5 hours preceding it, the third set tiebreaker was perhaps the most shocking and unbelievable period of the night. Thiem looked deflated at having failed to serve out the match, and even more deflated after the first point of the breaker went against him despite the fact that he literally threw the kitchen sink at Djokovic. On that point, the Serb looked just as much of a madman with his defence as Thiem did with his offence, and when he let out a roar of celebration after Thiem hit the final volley out, you knew it was well-deserved.

The Austrian promptly lost his next two service points, and when Djokovic built up a 4-1 lead the writing seemed to be on the wall. This was Djokovic at his cussed best, the one that had denied even Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final with clutch play for the ages, and Thiem seemed to have no way out.

But what happened in the next five minutes is something that will take years to fully explain or even comprehend. Thiem somehow rediscovered his superhuman strength just in the nick of time, blasting four thunderous winners on the next five points to go two match points up. While Djokovic saved the first one with a good return down the middle, he couldn't save the second; a netted forehand gave Thiem the most unlikely of triumphs, and a moment to remember forever.

"Coming back from 1-4 was a little bit of luck, but it was an unbelievable match and one I'll never forget. Novak is the best player in the world and I had to do something special," Thiem said immediately after the match. But was it really luck that helped him beat Djokovic to the punch?

Thiem had been unloading on his groundstrokes all night and been giving fits to Djokovic all night. What he did from 1-4 down wasn't all that different from what he had been doing for over two hours previously. He just went all out, because he knew that was the only way he could get the job done against a GOAT candidate who was playing close to his best and on his favourite surface.

"I knew that I had to play like this to beat him," Thiem said later, presumably after he had taken a little more time to process what had happened. "Against everybody who qualified for this tournament here, there is a special effort necessary to win. I did it against Roger, and I did it also today."

Yes, Thiem has actually beaten Federer and Djokovic back-to-back, and that too on the quick indoor hardcourt of the ATP Finals. These two players have won the tournament six and five times respectively (the two highest tallies in history), and yet they finished second best to a man not known for his prowess outside clay. If someone had told you a week ago that Thiem would not only qualify for the semis before Federer and Djokovic but also top the group, would you have believed them?

"I'm really happy and proud because it was probably the best match I've ever played," Thiem said.

If a 'claycourt specialist' thinks the best match he's ever played was on a hardcourt, maybe it is time to retire the idea that he is a claycourt specialist at all. Thiem has done something that we thought was impossible €" making us relive that glorious Parisian afternoon from four years ago €" and the fact that he has done it on hardcourt rather than his preferred clay is the strongest sign yet that his evolution is complete.

Also See: ATP Finals 2019: Novak Djokovic registers easy win over Matteo Berrettini in tournament opener

ATP Finals 2019: Roger Federer faces tough task to qualify for semis after straight sets defeat against Dominic Thiem

ATP Finals 2019: Rafael Nadal racing to be fit with year-end number one ranking up for grabs

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