In a week-long performance reminiscent of Alexander Zverev’s run to the ATP World Tour Finals title at the end of 2018, Dominic Thiem blazed a nearly flawless path through intense competition to win his first Masters 1000 title at Indian Wells. He defeated Roger Federer in the finals 3-6, 6-3, 7-5.
Federer and Thiem split their four previous meetings before battling through three tough sets in the Indian Wells final. Thiem’s wins against Federer had both come in 2016 when Federer was struggling with injury and Federer’s two victories both came on hard courts making the 37 year old Swiss the favorite before the match. Thiem produced the same strong serving and incandescent baseline of his previous rounds to first subdue and then defeat Federer.
The Match – Indian Wells Final
The first set followed the expected script. Federer broke early and played clean, aggressive tennis. Thiem found his rhythm half way through the set and broke back but Federer dug deep, broke again, and served out the set 6-3.
Thiem went from strength to strength in the second sent helped by a dip in Federer’s first serve percentage. The clarity of Thiem’s game plan was apparent from the early stages of the match: blast the ball into Federer’s backhand corner at every opportunity and force longer hard-hitting baseline rallies. Despite his scratchy serving, Federer hung on allowing Thiem only the single break. But one break was all the Austrian needed to take the second set 6-3.
The third set opened with Federer serving. The Swiss played with renewed clarity of mind, striking out viciously and holding cleanly. Thiem remained strong on his own serve until the eighth game of the set in which he had to dig deep to fend of Federer who created a break point and forced Thiem to deuce three times. Thiem, already playing freely, began unleashing his forehand. Almost every ball he struck off that wing was hit with as much power as possible. This strategy lead to a few more misses, but it also produced a flurry of flashy winners that blew past Federer and, when combined with nifty net-play in the eleventh game, gave him the crucial break of serve. Thiem was seemingly nerveless while serving for the match, taking the decider 7-5.
In the end, the break point opportunities told the story of the match. Thiem’s coolness under pressure and willingness to go after Federer in big moments made the difference. Thiem converted 3 of his 4 break point opportunities while Federer only won 2 of 11.
The Year Ahead
Both Federer and Thiem can take many positives from this hard-fought match. For the second year in a row, Federer fell to a big-hitting opponent in the finals of Indian Wells. Last year against Del Potro he had the match on his racquet. This year, he had chances to put it there. Last year, however, that close loss came after a run that saw Federer retain his Australian Open title and return to world number one for the first time since 2012; it felt like a halt to his momentum. This year, a close loss against an inspired opponent feels more like a continuation of the return to form he began in Dubai.
As for Thiem, his greatest previous successes have come on clay and his hard court record remains spotty. He is legendary for his relentless scheduling and intense conditioning regime. He’ll need every ounce of grit, power, and endurance if he is to build on this win and go on to a good run in Miami and immediately follow that with the European clay court swing. The confidence he will take from a first Masters 1000 win, after losing his two previous Masters 1000 finals, could carry him on to great feats in the near future.