Dominic Thiem produced a scintillating display of attacking tennis to beat Novak Djokovic and qualify for the last four at the ATP Finals on Tuesday, leaving the Serbian facing a shootout against Roger Federer.
In the standout match so far at London’s O2 Arena, the Austrian fifth seed took the fight to the world number two, recovering from losing the first set to triumph 6-7 (5/7), 6-3, 7-6 (7/5)
Earlier, Federer put himself back into the mix at the end-of-season event with a 7-6 (7/2), 6-3 win against Italian debutant Matteo Berrettini in their round-robin clash.
Federer and Djokovic will face off on Thursday in a repeat of the Wimbledon final to determine who else will progress from Group Bjorn Borg.
Thiem was forced to play high-stakes tennis against the 16-time Grand Slam winner, taking the breath away with some of his inside-out forehands and single-handed backhands
Forced to play on the limit, he hit 50 winners compared to Djokovic’s tally of 27 but also racked up 44 unforced errors.
In a captivating first set lasting more than an hour, Djokovic, last year’s beaten finalist, drew first blood, breaking in the fourth game, but Thiem responded immediately, breaking back with a rasping backhand down the line.
Neither player managed to force another break and the set went to a tie-break, which Djokovic, a five-time ATP Finals champion, edged 7-5.
Undaunted, Thiem broke his opponent at the first opportunity in the second set and, with Djokovic’s error count climbing, went on to level the match.
Thiem then broke in the first game of the deciding set and stayed strong to hold under severe pressure.
The Austrian was again under pressure on his own serve in the sixth game and Djokovic broke back when Thiem went long with a backhand.
Thiem successfully challenged at 30-30 in the 10th game after his forehand was ruled out, preventing a match point for Djokovic and he toughed it out to level at 5-5.
He then broke Djokovic to love to earn a chance to serve for the match but stumbled and the decider went to a tie-break.
Thiem slipped to 4-1 down but recovered to win it on his second match point when Djokovic dumped a forehand into the net.
“I practised all my life, all my childhood for this,” said Thiem. “It was incredible.”
“Novak was in great shape and I had to do something special,” he added.
“I stayed in the match the whole time, came from a set down, I remained offensive, stuck to my game and I’m in the semi-final.”
Third seed Federer had put himself under the cosh by losing his opening round-robin match to Thiem.
The six-time champion was not at his fluent best on Tuesday but ultimately had too much for his Italian opponent.
The Swiss upped his game to take the first set tie-break comfortably and broke immediately at the start of the second set to leave the big-serving Italian with too much to do.
Federer, 38, will face Djokovic on Thursday in a repeat of July’s marathon Wimbledon final, during which he squandered two championship points on his own serve.
The Swiss was asked after his win against Berrettini whether that defeat had left emotional or mental scars.
“We’ll find out, but I think it’s all flushed away from my side,” said Federer, who added that it had taken him two weeks at most to get over the loss.
“A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then.
“We have played a lot of matches since, and I think we both look back at a great match. I think we both can take away some confidence from the match.”
Djokovic is hunting a sixth ATP Finals title to pull level with Federer’s record and is also seeking to pip Rafael Nadal to the year-end number one ranking.
On Monday, top seed Nadal lost his opener in Group Andre Agassi to defending champion Alexander Zverev while Stefanos Tsitsipas beat Daniil Medvedev.
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