Novak Djokovic in action against Dominic Thiem.
A lean spell for Novak Djokovic, the world No 1, ended in Madrid yesterday when he edged past Dominic Thiem, comfortably the best clay-court player of the younger generation, to reach his first final since January’s Australian Open.
This was a landmark win because Thiem had already beaten the two most famous players on the tour, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, in the past fortnight. He is a beast, physically, and he applies heavy top-spin to every groundstroke, almost like a right-handed Nadal. But Djokovic has a peerless ability to smother those fizzing bombs as they rear up off the surface – a skill honed during his seven wins over Nadal on clay.
Having looked a little short of motivation in recent months – a period in which he won a mere five matches at the three Masters events in Indian Wells, Miami and Monte Carlo – Djokovic was yelling and fist-pumping again yesterday.
He knows that the French Open – where a win, remarkably, would leave him holding all four majors for the second time in his career – is only three weeks away.
This was a straight-sets win, but still a draining one, as Djokovic needed 2hr 22min to wrap up a 7-6, 7-6 victory. He had a nervy moment when he served for the match at 6-5 in the second set, and was broken to 15. But rather than allowing his poise to slip, Djokovic regrouped and closed out the tie-break, 7-4, with some superbly precise play.
He also deserved credit for his sportsmanship in that final service game, because Thiem’s stinging return on the second point was wrongly called out, and then overruled by the chair umpire. Djokovic, who had framed his second shot wide, could have argued that the “out” call had disrupted his rhythm, but instead he accepted it straight away and moved on to the next point.
“I played the best match of the clay-court season for me,” said Djokovic, “against arguably the best tennis player in the world on this surface. Dominic won the title in Barcelona, and had a thrilling win over Roger Federer yesterday.
“The conditions were very fast, and the ball was bouncing very high. Next to Rafa, Thiem plays with the most spin and rotation on the tour. He hits a very heavy ball, and it’s very hard to stay on the baseline and dictate play. But I managed to come through.”