Thiem into ATP Finals semis as Djokovic and Federer face shootout

Austria's Dominic Thiem. (AFP)
Updated 13 November 2019

Thiem into ATP Finals semis as Djokovic and Federer face shootout

  • Austrian fifth seed took fight to the world No. 2, recovering from losing the first set to triumph

LONDON: Dominic Thiem produced a scintillating display of attacking tennis to beat Novak Djokovic and qualify for the last four at the ATP Finals on Tuesday, leaving the Serbian facing a shootout against Roger Federer.

In the standout match so far at London’s O2 Arena, the Austrian fifth seed took the fight to the world No. 2, recovering from losing the first set to triumph 6-7 (5/7), 6-3, 7-6 (7/5)

Earlier, Federer put himself back in the mix at the end-of-season event with a 7-6 (7/2), 6-3 win against Italian debutant Matteo Berrettini in their round-robin clash.

Federer and Djokovic will face off on Thursday in a repeat of this year’s Wimbledon final to determine who else will progress from Group Bjorn Borg.

Thiem was forced to play high-stakes tennis against the 16-time Grand Slam winner, taking the breath away with some of his inside-out forehands and single-handed backhands

Forced to play at his limit, he hit 50 winners compared with Djokovic’s tally of 27 but also racked up 44 unforced errors.

“This was really one of these special matches, what I’ve practiced all my life for, all my childhood for,” Thiem said.

“Really epic one in an amazing atmosphere, beating a legend of our game. And also I’ve qualified for the semifinals, which is the best.

“Coming back from 1-4 (down in the deciding tie-break) was a little bit of luck, but it was an unbelievable match and one I’ll never forget. Novak is the best player in the world and I had to do something special.”

In a captivating first set the players swapped a break apiece but Djokovic, a five-time ATP Finals champion, edged the tie-break.

Undaunted, Thiem broke his opponent at the first opportunity in the second set and, with Djokovic’s error count climbing, went on to level the match.

Thiem also drew first blood in the decider but cracked in the sixth game as Djokovic levelled the match and appeared to have engineered a switch in momentum.

The Austrian successfully challenged at 30-30 in the 10th game after his forehand was ruled out, preventing a match point for Djokovic and he toughed it out to level at 5-5.

He then broke Djokovic to love to earn a chance to serve for the match but stumbled and the decider went to a tie-break.

Still the drama was not finished. Thiem slipped to 4-1 down but battled back to win it on his second match point when Djokovic dumped a forehand into the net.

Third seed Federer had put himself under the cosh by losing his opening round-robin match to Thiem. The six-time champion was not at his fluent best on Tuesday but ultimately had too much for his Italian opponent.

The Swiss upped his game to take the first set tie-break comfortably and broke immediately at the start of the second set to leave the big-serving Berrettini with too much to do.

Federer was asked after his win against Berrettini whether his defeat to Djokovic at Wimbledon had left emotional or mental scars.

“We’ll find out, but I think it’s all flushed away from my side,” said the Swiss.

“A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then.”

Djokovic is hunting a sixth ATP Finals title to pull level with Federer’s record and is also seeking to pip Rafael Nadal to the year-end number one ranking.

On Monday, top seed Nadal lost his opener in Group Andre Agassi to defending champion Alexander Zverev while Stefanos Tsitsipas beat Daniil Medvedev.


Leeds face test of nerve as promotion looms

Updated 07 July 2020

Leeds face test of nerve as promotion looms

  • Marcelo Bielsa’s side look odds-on to secure the place among English football’s elite

LONDON: After 16 years in the wilderness, Leeds United are on the brink of an eagerly awaited return to the Premier League — as long as they can hold their nerve with the finish line in sight.

A 3-1 win at Blackburn on Saturday moved Leeds a step closer to the promised land from the long purgatory of the lower leagues.

Marcelo Bielsa's side sit one point clear at the top of the Championship heading into their last five matches.

With third-placed Brentford six points behind, Leeds look odds-on to secure the place among English football's elite that their legion of fanatical fans used to regard as their birthright.

But Leeds were in a similar position last season and squandered a chance for automatic promotion before imploding in the playoffs.

When Leeds beat Sheffield Wednesday on April 13, 2019, a capacity crowd at Elland Road serenaded their jubilant team as if promotion had been secured.

Just 15 days later, after losses to Wigan and Brentford and a mad-cap draw against Villa — in which Bielsa told his team to deliberately let their opponents score following United's controversial opener — ended the Leeds top two challenge.

Leeds lost their nerve and Derby took full advantage in the playoff semifinal second leg, winning 4-2 to leave the Elland Road faithful in tears.

From the ashes of that bitter evening, Bielsa has dragged Leeds back into promotion contention.

But, with last season's collapse in mind, Leeds fans might have been alarmed to hear Bielsa admit he is feeling the strain of the run-in.

"Yes," Bielsa said when asked if he felt anxious during the Blackburn game.

"Every match in this period is very important. If we get distracted we will pay for that so we need to keep focused in every match."

With English football being played behind closed doors for the rest of the season amid the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps Leeds will benefit from playing in silence, rather than in front of their anxious fans.

"I'd love to be there more than anything. But it's such a nervous time and I do think that could impact the players," Leeds season-ticket holder Simon Sanders told AFP.

"Nothing feels quite right with this virus and the way the world has changed but if we make it the party will go on for weeks."

Three of Leeds' remaining games will be played in the empty stands of Elland Road against struggling trio Stoke, Barnsley and Charlton.

Win those games and taken a point from one of their two away games at Swansea and Derby and Leeds will be assured of promotion.

It would be a moment to savor after such a long period in the shadows.

Champions of England in 1969 and 1974 under Don Revie, then in 1992 when Howard Wilkinson called the shots, Leeds have a rich history.

But since being relegated from the top tier in 2004, Leeds have stumbled from financial disaster off the pitch to despair on it.

Describing the club's ascent to the heady heights of the Champions League in the early 2000s, former chairman Peter Ridsdale claimed he had "lived the dream."

Their subsequent fall was a never-ending nightmare that hit its lowest ebb in 2007 when Leeds went into administration and were relegated to the third tier for the first time.

No wonder the much-travelled Bielsa is so beloved after just two years in charge.

The former Argentina, Lazio, Marseille and Bilbao boss has turned the tide at a tortured club infamously labelled the 'Damned United' by novelist David Peace and forever remembered as 'Dirty Leeds' in the minds of fans who saw their no-holds-barred style in the Revie era.

Now Leeds' Italian owner Andrea Radrizzani is embracing that checkered past in a bid to secure promotion at last.

"For Leeds, we have a history of being 'Dirty Leeds' and we actually channel that," Radrizzani told FIFA's Professional Football Journal.

"All of our boys are willing to fight for the shirt every week and having that character is important to being a Leeds player.

"I want to help Leeds return to the level our history and fans deserve."