Dominic Thiem had a chance to move to the doorstep of the Nitto ATP Finals title on Sunday evening.
With Thiem already leading by a set, it was 3-3, 30/40 in the second set, when Medvedev was forced to hit a second serve. The Russian made a daring play by serving and volleying. Thiem, who moved off the court to run around his backhand, struck a heavy topspin forehand return down the line that Medvedev barely scraped over the net. With the entire Ad court open, the Austrian rushed forward toward a seemingly routine putaway, but he shoveled a forehand well wide.
“Of course maybe the match… would have had a different outcome if I converted that break point,” Thiem said. “But still, it was not an easy shot. I mean, he played serve and volley. Hit a pretty good short volley. I was in full sprint and had the ball under the net, so it was not that easy, that shot. Of course I should put it in the court, but still I have not so much to regret.”
The question is, what went wrong?
When Thiem struck his forehand return, he had Medvedev in big trouble. The Russian did not guess a side, and he even split-stepped a moment too late, forcing him to lunge for his forehand volley, which looped high over the net and landed about midway into Thiem’s service box. Getting it back into play short in the court was a great effort in itself, and likely the best he could have hoped for in the situation.
After Thiem hit his return, he immediately started sprinting to cover the open court. By running around his backhand to hit a forehand, he was well out of position. But the moment in which he rushed to the open court — which was the right thing to do — likely prevented him from getting to the volley in time to hit the ball with topspin. What were the 27-year-old’s options?
Option 1 – Shovel Into The Open Court
Thiem took the most likely path by going into the open court. But as he ran forward, he didn’t change to a continental grip. It appeared that he thought he would get to the ball in time to hit a topspin forehand, as evidenced by his left hand momentarily coming up to his racquet, which is one of the early steps of a topspin forehand stroke production.
Since Thiem didn’t change to a continental grip, the shot became awkward. Using a forehand grip to hit a shovel shot is less natural, and players need to manipulate their wrist more to open the racquet face, which likely led to his miss.
Option 2 – Shovel At Medvedev
As Thiem rushed forward to retrieve the Russian’s volley, Medvedev was on the back foot. The fourth seed made contact with his forehand volley about halfway up the service box, but by the time Thiem got to the ball, Medvedev was already at the service line and moving backwards. Thiem wouldn’t have been able to get a lot of pace on the ball if he shoveled it at the Russian, but if he went that route and hit it into Medvedev’s body, the fourth seed would have struggled to get any pace of his own on the ball and he had no angle to work with. This potentially would have given Thiem a chance at a putaway volley.
Option 3 – Go Behind Medvedev
The open court was rightly tempting for Thiem. But going behind the Russian also would have proven effective. If Thiem hit the ball to Medvedev’s forehand side, he would have forced the Russian to hit his forehand volley down the line, because Thiem had the middle of the court and the cross-court play covered. This would have forced Medvedev to be extremely precise with his direction, as any miss closer to the middle of the court would have allowed Thiem to stretch for a backhand volley.
The eventual champion also was moving backwards, which would have made it difficult for him to hit his volley with much pace. There is also the possibility that Medvedev’s body weight would have been moving in the direction of the open court, which might have made it too difficult for him to react to being wrong-footed.
Option 4 – Touch Lob
This was the least likely of Thiem’s options, and also the most difficult shot for the Austrian. When sprinting forward, especially with a forehand grip, it is tough to control a touch lob. Medvedev was also moving backwards and already around the service line, which would have made it difficult to get the lob over his head. But if the Austrian were able to pull it off, the worst case scenario would have been Medvedev rushing back to hit a passing shot, putting Thiem in control of the point.
Regardless of the options, Thiem did not convert on his golden opportunity. On his other two break points in the set, he was unable to even touch the ball, as Medvedev hit curling aces down the T.
The Austrian did not earn a break point in the third set. This was his chance to seize the match and the trophy, and the consequences of missing proved costly.