Roger Federer suffers 'hiccup' against bugbear Dominic Thiem at ATP Finals

Simon Briggs
Roger Federer (right) lost 7-5, 7-5 to Dominic Thiem on London on Sunday night - PA Wire
Roger Federer (right) lost 7-5, 7-5 to Dominic Thiem on London on Sunday night - PA Wire

Roger Federer will have to go the long way round if he is to maintain his extraordinary record of qualifying for the semi-finals on each of his nine previous appearances at the O2 Arena. In a slightly sluggish day-one performance at the Nitto ATP Finals, Federer was outplayed on Sunday night by 26-year-old Austrian Dominic Thiem – a man who has become something of a bugbear for him – losing 7-5, 7-5. 

They also met in Indian Wells and Madrid, and Thiem came out on top on each occasion. He now leads Federer 5-2 in their head-to-head series.

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Most pundits had expected Group Andre Agassi to turn into a straight shoot-out between the Wimbledon finalists – Federer and Novak Djokovic. But while Djokovic swept through his opening match in 63 minutes, Federer was on the back foot from the first game, in which Thiem’s rasping returns forced an early break.

Thiem is the Tigger of the men’s tour – a whirling dervish of bouncy energy who strikes the ball with a huge, windmilling swing of his right arm. On Sunday, he was a step too quick for Federer, and more mentally resilient as well.

The crucial moment was the break point Thiem saved in the middle of the second set, after being pushed so wide that he found himself standing outside the doubles alley. Few players would have even reached that ball, but Thiem did, and then somehow fired a venomous forehand over the high part of the net that Federer was unable to handle.

“Just maybe first-round hiccups a little bit,” replied Federer, when asked what had gone awry for him. “Not hitting your spots on the serve when you need to, getting into trouble early in the service games, which maybe doesn’t happen later in the tournament.”

Thiem was delighted with his win over an opponent he described as “the best player of all time”. It was a good day all round after he had earlier congratulated his French girlfriend Kristina Mladenovic for her feats in the Fed Cup final in Perth.

“I didn’t watch it,” Thiem said on Sunday night. “It was too early and I couldn’t disrupt my preparations. But she won three points in the match, beating the world No 1, and probably it’s something very few players have done. I am super happy for her and nobody deserves it more than her.” 

<span>Novak Djokovic made easy work of Matteo Berrettini in London on Sunday</span> <span>Credit: Getty Images </span>
Novak Djokovic made easy work of Matteo Berrettini in London on Sunday Credit: Getty Images

In the afternoon match at the O2 Arena, Djokovic had launched into his campaign with almost nonchalant ease, squashing 23-year-old Italian debutant Matteo Berrettini by a 6-2, 6-1 scoreline.

Berrettini fits the template of the half-a-dozen twentysomethings now emerging to challenge the established stars. He is tall, dark and handsome – a sponsor’s dream – and his serve had the speed-gun spinning in the early stages, reaching a high point of 140 mph.

Not that it mattered much. Djokovic was so comfortable that he could have been playing Tetris at half speed. Fizzing down from Berrettini’s 6ft 5in frame, the ball almost seemed to gain speed off the slick court surface.

But Djokovic kept meeting it with the effortless timing of a batsman who has been at the crease for two sessions already. “I think he was returning unbelievable,” said a philosophical Berrettini.

<span>Djokovic plays yet another quite splendid return shot</span> <span>Credit: PA </span>
Djokovic plays yet another quite splendid return shot Credit: PA

After 62 matches in 2019, Djokovic might have been expected to feel at least a touch of weariness. To the chagrin of his rivals, though, he has recovered from the left shoulder issue that afflicted him at the US Open.

In an upbeat post-match press conference, he looked so fresh that he could have been one of the young newbies here himself.

“You are obliged to draw that last drop of energy that you got in order to finish the season in the best possible way,” Djokovic said. “My body has been responding positively, considering it’s the final few weeks of the year, where you tend to maybe have a bit more pain.”

Meanwhile, Britain’s only representative at the ATP Finals this year – doubles specialist Joe Salisbury – couldn’t land a victory on his opening appearance as he and his American partner Rajeev Ram were beaten 6-3, 6-4 by Michael Venus and Raven Klaasen.

<span>Joe Salisbury and American partner Rajeev Ram failed to make a winning start on Sunday </span> <span>Credit: GETTY IMAGES </span>
Joe Salisbury and American partner Rajeev Ram failed to make a winning start on Sunday Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Salisbury – a 27-year-old who is just finishing his first full season on the ATP Tour until – did at least enjoy the privilege of opening the 2019 Finals. This must have been quite a thrill for a man who is more used to watching from the stands, having spent most of his early 20s as a struggling singles player before switching to the team format in the middle of 2016.

But Salisbury and Ram couldn’t convert any of the four break points they held in this 65-minute encounter. One break in each set was enough for their opponents to move to the top of Group Jonas Bjorkman via a 6-3, 6-4 scoreline.

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