Dominic Thiem bounced back from blowing four match points in a dramatic tie-break in the second set to beat Novak Djokovic in three vibrant sets in the last four at the ATP Finals on Saturday.
The victory of the Austrian third-seeded 7-5, 6-7 (10/12), 7-6 (7/5) ended Djokovic’s hopes of equaling Roger Federer’s record of six titles in the eight-man elite event. .
The US Open champion will face Rafael Nadal or Daniil Medvedev in Sunday’s final as he seeks the second-biggest title of his career.
The 2019 runner-up, who forced the only break in the first set, faced an uphill battle psychologically after his missed chances in the second set tie-break.
But he quickly returned to the routine and stood his ground to come back 4-0 in the tie-break of the last set, winning six consecutive points to add two match points and taking the second of them.
“It was definitely a mental battle,” Thiem said. “I was so tight in the tie-break of the second set, firstly because playing against these legends will always be something special.
“And then playing for a final here in the ATP Finals is also something very special. I thought that after my first big title in New York, maybe I would be a little calmer, but I guess it was a mistake.
“I was just as tense and nervous as before and I was so on edge, the game … I’m incredibly happy to be over.”
Thiem took some time to settle in early in the match, making a series of unforced errors, but he found his rhythm and his one-handed backhand became a major weapon as the match progressed.
The third seed produced a strong forehand to establish the first and only break point in the eleventh game of the first set and Djokovic scored with a volley.
The 27-year-old closed the set in impressive fashion, attacking a winning backhand down the line before producing an ace.
A frustrated-looking Djokovic was in trouble at break point in the fifth game of the second set, but Thiem scored with a forehand and the opportunity was blown away.
The 33-year-old Djokovic earned his first break point of the match in the eighth game, but Thiem eliminated the danger.
The Austrian, who lost last year’s final at the O2 Arena to Stefanos Tsitsipas, produced a tough game when he served to stay in the second set but saved two break points against the 17-time Grand Slam champion.
– Tie-break drama –
In a scathing tiebreaker, Thiem wasted four match points and finally threw a backhand at the net as Djokovic took it 12-10 to level the match.
Both players settled in quickly at the start of the deciding match, with Djokovic looking much more focused than in the latter stages of the second set.
The Serb staggered in the eighth game but managed to hold on and the match seemingly inevitably headed for a shootout.
Thiem looked down and out at 4-0 in the final set tie-break, but rebounded in impressive fashion, converting his sixth match point with a powerful forehand.
Thiem is only the second player in 2020 to win a tie-break against Djokovic, who entered the decisive third set with a 15-1 tie-break record this season.
The Austrian has risen to the top echelon of the men’s game, reaching the final of the Australian Open this year, where he lost to Djokovic, before his triumph at Flushing Meadows in September.
The world’s four best players reached the semi-finals for the first time at London’s O2 Arena, which is hosting the season-ending event for the twelfth and final year.
Second seed Nadal, seeking his first ATP Finals title, plays world number four Medvedev in Saturday night’s game.