In the clash of two players that arrived to Madrid with tournament titles in the most recent tournaments they played, Dominic Thiem edged out Fabio Fognini 6-4 7-5, thanks to single breaks in each set.
Thiem presents a match-up problem to Fognini because of the depth on his shots along with the power he can generate from all areas of the court. Fabio prefers players whose topspin groundies allow him to take the ball early at times and direct rallies from the court. That accounts for some of the success that he enjoyed on clay even against Rafael Nadal for example when the Spaniard’s shots lack depth and bounce enough for him to make contact with the ball at the chest-to-shoulder height, his favorite spot to accelerate.
If you have access to the replay of Thursday’s match against Thiem and prefer to see an illustration of the above, consider the last point of the very first game. Thiem hit a fairly loopy topspin that was not particularly short by any means but not enough to push Fognini back either, allowing the Italian to get his lower body balanced. Fabio made contact from a little behind the baseline but was still able to nail his backhand down-the-line hard enough to force Dominic into an error. A second example of the type of point that Fognini would like to play if he could design the rallies came when he was serving at 3-5 and had a game point to hold. He was able to direct the rally from the top of the baseline, running Thiem rugged on the other end.
Unfortunately for Fognini, those opportunities were few and far between. Instead, Thiem produced a steady flow of high-octane drives that put Fognini in retrieval mode at times and caused him discomfort at others by forcing him to manufacture high-risk shots from further behind the baseline. This pattern crippled Fognini’s fire power throughout the first set – and most of the match – one that forced him to adapt a higher risk game than he would have desired, albeit the right decision at that juncture of the match.
The first set saw multiple examples of Thiem imposing his game on his opponent using the above tactic. Among them:
– The first two points of the 1-1 game are excellent examples. In both rallies, Thiem drives balls deep to the baseline, pushing Fognini back into consecutive errors, one on the forehand, one on the backhand. Dominic goes on to break Fabio’s serve and take the definitive lead in the set.
– Leading 3-2, 15-15, Thiem stifles Fognini with two deep drives, the second one forcing Fognini to miss the forehand.
– A more versatile example is takes place in the 5-3 game with Fognini serving at 15-0. The Italian hits a wonderful kick serve to the outside and Thiem has to return from way behind the baseline and outside of the court. Yet, Dominic is able to return hard and deep with his backhand and although the return lands to the middle of the court and Fognini is not really in too much discomfort, he did not expect it to come back that fast and misses the forehand because he could not step forward to accelerate that second shot after the return like he is perhaps accustomed to against other players.
– On the first point of the next game at 5-4, again, he sails a forehand deep when Thiem pushes back on the deuce corner.
Keep in mind that these were recorded as unforced errors for the most part (in my count, although the official count was apparently less forgiving than me) simply because he should at least get these balls in the court. They were neither hit from terribly difficult positions nor on the full run. The more pertinent point is that Fognini’s mind is not accustomed to having to respond to a large number of deep balls that do not carry the amount of spin that he likes, and with which he has to make contact below his favorite level. This is where the match-up problem against an in-form Thiem turns into a nightmare for him. Let me also add that Thiem’s balls have just enough pace on them to where Fognini cannot run around his backhand to strike forehands, his more preferred side in order to take charge of rallies.
Thus, it comes as no surprise that, following a first set that was more routine for Thiem in reality than the 6-4 scoreline would suggest, Fognini would modify his game. Determined (I am assuming) not to submit to rallies where Thiem is the dominant side in the second set, he astutely began to turn more aggressive with his ground strokes and refused to back up far behind the baseline unless absolutely necessary, even if meant hitting some half-volleys from the top of the baseline. It cost him an error on the very first point of the second set but worked for him during the rest of the game, holding serve eventually on a backhand down-the-line winner that he took very early off the bounce.
On the next return game, he moved in further on Thiem’s second serves and made multiple attempts to finish the point on return winners. This is where another problem presented itself for Fabio. Having served with around a 55% first-serve rate until 3-2 in the first set, Thiem put more and more first serves in as the match progressed. He served at 71% for the second set, 66% for the match. So, precisely when Fabio could have used some second serves by his opponent to assert his modified tactic, Thiem came up with the goods on that department.
However, Fognini did at least succeed in steadying the ship on his service games. In the 1-1 game, for example, taking risks on the second shot of the 1-2 punch bore fruit as he hit a fabulous forehand winner on a very important 30-30 point. He sank his teeth into the match enough that Thiem, for his part, no longer felt as comfortable as he did in the first set – in which he made only three unforced errors in ten games, being the aggressor!
Fognini had his first peek at a chance on Thiem’s serve at 30-30, leading 2-1. The door closed quickly on him when he made two unforced errors in a row to lose the game.
He knocked on the door much harder though, when Thiem served at 3-4. But before I go any further, let me add a paragraph about another tactic that worked wonders for Thiem.
Throughout the match, Thiem also gave Fognini fits with his wide serve on the ad side, always forcing Fognini to hit a backhand return from close to the side stands (see the last game of the match for an example of how effectively Thiem used that serve). Fabio missed many such returns, and when and if he got them back in, Thiem would finish it to the open court or control the rally until he won the point.
Back to Thiem serving at 3-4. With the Austrian up a game point at 40-30, Fognini managed, for once, to crack a sizzling backhand down-the-line return from that specific position and won the point a shot later. That rare moment of success carried him to the only break-point opportunity of the match he held when he won the next point.
Thiem, however, had an answer once again. He served the exact same serve as above, probably banking on the fact that Fognini coming up with the same quality of return two times in a row, a shot with which he had constantly struggled, was highly improbable.
Thiem was right. Fognini’s return fell short this time.
Thiem attacked the net and Fognini missed the backhand passing shot attempt in the net. When Thiem held serve two points later, the steam seemed to come out of the Fognini train, and his disposition began turning sour.
Following his indecorous behavior at 0-15 down in the ensuing 4-4 game (he sent a ball to the stands and received a code violation), while the spectators were whistling, Fognini did not wait for the crowd to calm down and served his second serve. Thiem, distracted, missed the return. Anyone other than Thiem would have probably lifted his hand up and held Fognini from serving. Dominic didn’t, missed the return, shook his head and moved to return the next point. The Austrian still earned a break point later but missed a golden opportunity when he picked the wrong side on a badly hit drop shot by Fabio and got passed at the net. Two points later, Fognini held serve and Thiem missed his chance to serve for the match at 5-4.
Those two games did however swing the pendulum back in Thiem’s favor. It was the last game Fognini won. Thiem held serve without much trouble and broke Fognini’s at 5-5 for the conclusive lead after Fognini made two forehand unforced errors in a row at deuce.
The 6-5 game began on another unforced error by Fognini and ended (along with the match) on his miss into the net on a routine high-forehand volley.
Fognini ended the match with 25 errors (30 according to official stats) while Thiem made only 12. Another solid performance by Thiem firmly establishes him as one of the top players to beat during the clay season, probably right along with (or just behind, depending on your perspective) Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. A player who would also like to be in that position is Roger Federer, Thiem’s next opponent in the quarterfinals, against whom he has a winning overall record at 3-2. In fact, Dominic was the last player to defeat Roger (7-6 6-4) on clay, in the 2016 Rome ATP 1000 event, before the Swiss decided to take the clay-court seasons off until this year.