Novak Djokovic, five times a champion here, failed to reach the concluding Sunday of the ATP World Tour Finals for a record eighth time, as Dominic Thiem laboured for nearly three hours in a gritty but flawed win over the world No 1.
Djokovic saved four match points in the second set and led 4-0 in the third-set tie-break but could not hold the Austrian at bay in an absorbing rather than great semi-final at the O2 Arena in London.
Thiem’s 7-5, 6-7 (10), 7-6 (5) win was the 300th of his career, and the reigning US Open champion will be hard to beat in Sunday’s final. “It was so much on the edge,” he said. “I’m just happy to get through. Whatever happens, we’ll have a first-time winner. It’s going to be the last match of a very tough year for everybody and we’re going to try to put on a great show.”
In a nervous opening, Djokovic was forced to hold from 0-30 four times in a row. The Austrian’s single-handed backhand – bigger, maybe, than even Stan Wawrinka’s – was clicking ominously, and Djokovic needed his extra gears to stay with him. Five times on the spin he had to risk putting extra muscle on his second serve, hitting up to 115mph down the T to win the point.
Thiem, frustrated, hurled his racket into the empty seats after the ninth game (and hit an ace first time with his replacement). Djokovic, thrown out of the US Open for a similar display of temper in a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium, might have been excused a wry smile.
Cracks appeared in the Thiem game after 40 minutes when he double-faulted and overcooked a forehand to fight through deuce a second time, but he gained a break point with a cracking winner in the 10th game, and Djokovic obliged by dumping a difficult low volley. Thiem aced down the middle to take the first set.
A love hold at the start of the second restored Djokovic’s composure, but Thiem is remarkably cool under pressure; in the US Open final in September, he came from 0-2 in the fifth set tie-break to frustrate Alexander Zverev.
There was little in the second set until the fifth game. “He doesn’t have that steely look in his eye,” the former British No 1 Tim Henman observed in the BBC commentary box as Djokovic saved break point to hold for 3-2. “He’s a little fragile.” Yet Thiem couldn’t nail him. Djokovic, re-engaged, got his first break point of the match after an hour and 22 minutes, but his forehand flew an inch long and Thiem escaped for 4-4.
Serving at 5-6, Thiem double-faulted and hit long to hand Djokovic two set points. He saved both, cranking his serve up to 126mph, and forced the tie-break after a string of shaky points.
Djokovic seemed to be affecting nonchalance as he spun his racket in the air, end over end, while waiting for Thiem’s serve, but he switched on to win four points in a row for 4-2 at the change of ends. Under serious pressure, he saved four match points (one of them gifted with a double fault), and took it to a third set when he cramped his opponent’s feared backhand on the baseline after two hours of edgy combat.
Djokovic had won 15 of 16 tie-breaks this year, a phenomenal return, and was invigorated when Thiem double-faulted at the outset of the second shootout. He led 4-0, but Thiem dug deep to go 5-4 up, with Djokovic serving. Thiem clawed his way to his fifth and sixth match points, Djokovic saved one but struck his final lob long and it was done.