World No.1 Novak Djokovic sent a message loud and clear on Saturday: he is back in top form.
Djokovic reached his third Mutua Madrid Open final by beating fifth seed Dominic Thiem 7-6(2), 7-6(4). The Serbian, who is into his first final since triumphing at the Australian Open, ended the recent Barcelona champion’s eight-match winning streak, eliminating the Austrian after a physical baseline battle that lasted two hours and 22 minutes.
“I played the best match of the clay-court season so far, for me, against arguably the best tennis player in the world on this surface, so far [this season],” said Djokovic. “[Dominic] had an amazing tournament in Barcelona and here he beat Roger yesterday in a thrilling match. So he was in form… I just managed to hold my nerves and play the best when it was most needed.”
The two-time Madrid champion, who had made just one quarter-final in three tournaments since his Melbourne win, is trying to tie Rafael Nadal’s record of 33 ATP Masters 1000 titles. When Djokovic has won a semi-final at the Caja Magica (2011 and 2016), he has gone on to lift the trophy each time. The Serbian will face World No. 2 Rafael Nadal or reigning Next Gen ATP Finals Champion Stefanos Tsitsipas on Sunday.
Early on, Thiem appeared to be riding the momentum from his thrilling quarter-final victory against Roger Federer, using his power to overwhelm Djokovic for an early break. But the top seed remained calm and raised his level to match Thiem’s push, showing incredible defence to earn his first break point. Djokovic didn’t waste the opportunity, as Thiem missed an inside-in forehand from a tough position to give back the break.
Thiem earned two more opportunities to break Djokovic at 4-4, and a second time violation assessed to the Serbian forced Djokovic to defend the first of those chances on his second serve. But the top seed again raised his level to hold serve. And in the eventual tie-break, Djokovic’s defence was too strong, forcing Thiem into unforced errors.
But the physicality of Thiem’s baseline game seemingly began to wear down Djokovic’s defences, as he broke for 4-2 in the second set after a game that lasted more than 10 minutes. But in the next game Djokovic put immediate pressure back on the Austrian with returns that landed near the baseline to get back on serve.
The twists and turns continued as the World No. 1 served for the match at 6-5, but double faulted his advantage away. However, Djokovic maintained his focus in the tie-break and moved through to the championship match at his first opportunity when Thiem mishit a backhand well out.
“Maybe I should have closed it out when I was serving for it at 6-5, but I got a little bit nervous and made some unforced errors and we got into a tie-break,” Djokovic said. “In both tie-breaks I thought I was calm, I was composed, I played the right shots and I read his serve well.
“These are the fastest conditions that I’ve played in at this tournament so far. Very heavy ball from his side and next to Rafa he probably is the player with the most spin and rotation on the ball, so it’s very hard to dictate the play, stay close to the line, which was obviously the tactic coming into the match,” Djokovic said.
“I knew that I need to be closer to the line and try to dictate the play, mix up the pace. I didn’t want to give him too much time. If he has a lot of time, he is as good of a player as you can get on this surface.”
Thiem had won the pair’s past two FedEx ATP Head2Head meetings, which both came on clay (2017) Roland Garros and 2018 Monte-Carlo), but Djokovic now has a 6-2 edge in their rivalry.
“I never complain about [reaching an ATP Masters] 1000 semi-final. It’s a very good result,” said Thiem. “I beat three very good players and I lost [in two tie-break sets] to Djokovic… It was a very good tournament and now I will enjoy the doubles [semi-final].”
Did You Know?
Djokovic now owns 199 wins against Top 10 opponents (199-90). That is more victories against the elite group than the other three Madrid semi-finalists combined (189-133).