Dominic Thiem is known for his overwhelming power from the baseline. But one shot that proved critical in his semi-final victory against World No. 1 Novak Djokovic at the Nitto ATP Finals on Saturday was his backhand slice.
“If it wouldn’t be there, I think a big part of my game would be missing,” Thiem said.
Djokovic had this year’s US Open champion in deep trouble in the final-set tie-break, but the backhand slice helped the Austrian dig out of that hole. From 4/0 down, Thiem hit at least one backhand slice in the next four rallies (that did not result in an ace) to gain a 6/4 advantage.
“It’s definitely [one of the] most important shots in my game. I love to use the slice… on all surfaces, actually. But here the bounce is pretty low. It’s a fast surface, so it’s a great, great option, especially to get from a defensive position into a neutral position again,” Thiem said. “It helped me out great today.“
In some cases, Thiem used his backhand slice as a tactical tool before unleashing his massive forehand. It was as if he was putting the nail into place with his slice before using his hammer to finish the job. At 1/4 and 5/4, the third seed neutralised Djokovic’s attack with a backhand slice before later uncorking a winner.
At 2/4, four of Thiem’s nine shots in the rally were backhand slices. The last of those shots was a short slice, forcing Djokovic to awkwardly attempt to approach the net with his own backhand slice, which went into the net.
The slice Thiem seemed happiest with came at 3/4. Djokovic pushed him back with a deep return. After fending that off with a defensive forehand, Thiem turned the tide in the point with a nasty backhand slice down the line, which tailed away from Djokovic’s forehand. The top seed was barely able to get to the ball and he missed a backhand later in the rally.
“I think it was 3/4, one time [I hit an] amazing slice… a great one down the line, which is such an important shot in my game,” Thiem said. “I think I improved it and I practised it a lot.”
Djokovic certainly noticed Thiem’s backhand slice.
“What he did from 0/4 in the third-set tie-break was just unreal. I mean, I don’t think I played bad,” Djokovic said. “He just crushed the ball. Everything went in from both corners, and he played couple of very short slices, angles.”
All eyes are always on Thiem’s incredible power, and rightfully so. The 27-year-old crushed winners in key moments Saturday. But 26 per cent of Thiem’s groundstrokes were slices compared to only nine per cent for Djokovic, and that played a role, too.
– Slice statistics courtesy of Hawkeye