Novak Djokovic’s controversial season over as Dominic Thiem books place in ATP Finals showpiece

Djokovic and Thiem shake hands after the latter's victory in their semi-final - ACTION IMAGES
Djokovic and Thiem shake hands after the latter’s victory in their semi-final – ACTION IMAGES

Novak Djokovic’s strange and controversial tennis season is over, after Dominic Thiem eliminated him from the Nitto ATP Finals in a spectacular denouement to the first semi-final.

In a year when the sport has been overshadowed by off-court events, Djokovic has never left centre stage. The pandemic was clearly the main story, but we have also seen the launch of a rival player union – the Professional Tennis Players’ Association – and  latterly the domestic abuse allegations against Alexander Zverev, which Zverev denies.

In every case, Djokovic has taken up positions that involved swimming against the flow. He began 2020 by throwing doubt over the value of vaccinations, and promoting a pseudo-scientific hustler in a series of Instagram chats. Then he ran an exhibition tour without social distancing that led to four players becoming infected with Covid-19, including himself.

In late August, Djokovic launched his confrontational union, in defiance of the ATP Tour’s desperate requests for unity. A fortnight later, his departure from the US Open in New York was even more eye-catching, as he stormed out of the Billie Jean King Tennis Centre after being defaulted for striking a line judge with a loose ball.

And now, this week, Djokovic’s final contribution to 2020’s tennis culture has been to tweet his support for Zverev. His comments appeared to suggest that Olga Sharypova’s allegations were a distraction to the more important business of hitting fuzzy yellow balls over a net.

This is an intelligent man, who speaks a multiplicity of languages and always gives interesting – if not necessarily popular – answers. 

So how does he end up on the provocative side of the argument every time? You could say that he is unfiltered and genuine. He certainly speaks with passion. But this is hardly the way to reach out beyond his prickly group of hardcore fans. There must be a case for some kind of PR drive next year, perhaps even the hiring of a communications professional whom he trusts.

This might be difficult, however. One of the qualities that marks out truly great athletes – a category to which Djokovic undoubtedly belongs – is that they follow their instincts, even when the evidence might recommend a rethink.

After Saturday’s match, the focus of Djokovic’s press conference was on the result – even if he did swat away one question about the possibility of vaccinations being required for next year’s Australian Open. He was frustrated about his failure to convert a 4-0 in the deciding-set tie-break, but he also commended Thiem for the way he turned the match around.

Standing on the verge of elimination, Thiem took a risk and went for some of his trademark haymakers. Every one of them landed as he won seven of the last eight points to reach the final at the O2 Arena for the second successive year.

“What he did from 0-4 in the third-set tie-breaker was just unreal,” Djokovic said. “I don’t think I played bad. I made all first serves [but] he just crushed the ball. Everything went in from both corners. I thought I was in the driver’s position. He just took it away from me. But he deserved it.”

Was the result a surprise? Perhaps not. Because even though Djokovic is the world No 1 and had a 41-4 record coming into this match, Thiem has made a habit of beating tennis’s most famous names recently. He also outmuscled Rafael Nadal this week, taking  his overall record against the “Big Three” (which also includes Roger Federer) since the start of 2019 to nine wins and only three losses.

This one was a bumpy ride, because Thiem had four match points in the second set and choked them away with a double-fault and a weak forehand miss. “I was mentally not that strong,” he said after his 7-5, 6-7, 7-6 win. “I was so tight in my whole body.” But the great thing about Thiem is that he has more artillery than anyone else. And, particularly indoors, a brilliant attack will usually overcome a dogged defence. One stroke in that late sequence of screamers, a clean backhand winner from a couple of yards behind the baseline, was described by a coach as the shot of the year.

Thiem thus becomes only the second man after Andy Murray to notch five wins against each of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer. After he lifted September’s US Open trophy without beating any of them, some said that there was an asterisk against his name, because the highest-ranked opponent he faced was world No5  Daniil Medvedev. It is true that Djokovic defaulted while neither Nadal nor Federer even entered. On this evidence, though, it would not have mattered.

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