Thiem overcomes nerves and Isner
A full 37 years have passed since John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg’s infamous fourth-set tiebreak in the 1980 Wimbledon final, but the Laver Cup captains found history repeating before their very eyes in Prague – McEnroe once again winning the battle, before Borg won the war.
John Isner may have claimed the 21-minute opening set tiebreak 17-15 for Team World – two points shy of McEnroe’s 18-16 scoreline on Center Court – but Dominic Thiem turned the match around to put Team Europe 2-0 ahead with a 6-7(15) 7-6(2) 10-7 win.
Captaincy is a new experience for Borg, and the Swede admitted to finding it more nerve-wracking to be on the bench than the baseline as Thiem claimed the first match tiebreak between two tour-level singles players to seal victory in two hours, eight minutes.
“I think I was more nervous today than when I was playing, because when you play you have control – you know what to do, or not to do” Borg said.
“But when you are watching someone you want to win, you get more emotional. You get more nervous. Of course I was little nervous when Dominic was playing today, because I wanted him to win so badly.”
Isner, introduced to the O2 Arena crowd as “the man with more than 9,000 aces,” fired his full salvo at the Austrian, but it wasn’t enough to get Team World on the board as Thiem rallied from 4-0 down in the deciding tiebreak – the fifth of the day – to prevail. There’s no denying the potency of the big man’s biggest weapon, delivered with great variety from a great height, but it is in the backcourt that the 32-year-old has worked hard to improve in recent years, particularly on return.
In world No.7 Thiem, however, the American met a baseline master. The 24-year-old utilized every angle at his disposal to keep the American on the run throughout, time and again pinning him the ad court before dancing around his backhand to rip a forehand down the line. There were flashes of defiance from his opponent, but when it mattered Thiem’s patterns won out.
McEnroe, leaning forward and shadow-hitting balls between points, knew Isner represented Team World’s most likely chance of clinching a singles point on day one. Only 10 rankings places separate the American and the Austrian, who claimed a win apiece from each other in 2015.
There was not so much as a deuce game in the opening set, let alone a break point, as both men executed their gameplans on serve comfortably – Isner playing one-two tennis, Thiem happy to extend the rallies.
When the first significant break came, it went to Isner, rifling a backhand winner in response to Thiem’s swinging volley to change ends 4-2 ahead, but Thiem brought the O2 Arena crowd to their feet with a stunning backhand return winner to level up.
From there the duo traded blows to split 11 set points, Thiem twice leveling against the Isner serve. In the end, however, the Austrian sailed a forehand long on the hour mark, and Team World had their first set of the competition.
The second set was headed in the same direction before Thiem, who responded brilliantly to the disappointment of slipping behind, suddenly produced the first break point of the match at 4-3, and two more at 5-4 with the set on the line. Each time Isner kept his faith in Ol’ Reliable, serving his way out of danger before seeing his own chances to forge ahead thwarted at 5-5.
With both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal chipping in with words of advice, Thiem seized the initiative to level the match, but looked to halt his own momentum by taking a comfort break before the deciding 10-pointer. Isner raced to a 4-0 lead before Thiem roared back, winning seven of the next eight points before closing out the win.
“I was very nervous,” Thiem admitted, mirroring his captain. “I knew that it’s going to be a very tough and difficult match.”
It was similar to a tour match, but maybe a little bit more because the players who play are also responsible for the team they play for. On the tour, if you lose, it’s fine – it’s only for yourself. But here it’s for the whole Team Europe, and that’s what makes it, sort of what made me a little bit more nervous than normal.”