Two drop shots, two shots among the hundreds that Roger Federer hit during his stroll to the finals of the BNP Paribas Open, made the difference between the Swiss master capturing a record sixth championship here and Austria’s Dominic Thiem instead clutching the victor’s trophy and joking he was now merely 88 titles behind Federer on the career wins list. “It’s unreal,” Thiem marveled after his 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 triumph at Indian Wells Tennis Garden, the 12th title of his career.
It certainly was unexpected, this breaching of Federer’s armor in his second straight runner-up finish here. Federer hadn’t dropped a set in his previous four matches, had been broken only once, and was physically fresh following a walkover in the semifinals due to Rafael Nadal’s knee injury.
Federer, seeded No. 4, built a 3-0 lead 14 minutes into the first set on Sunday and won it on his second set point; he looked a bit off at times during the second set but that was because of elevated play from the hard-hitting Thiem, who’s younger by 12 years at 25 and also benefited from a walkover, when Gael Monfils withdrew before the quarterfinals.
“You could definitely feel like every shot in Dominic’s game has got some punch behind it. I think that’s why also he did well here this week,” Federer said. “I’m surprised he didn’t do better in previous years.”
Federer also noted the shrinking margin of difference among top players, which is glaringly obvious: Thiem, seeded No. 7, was the 19th winner in the 19 Assn. of Tennis Professionals events contested this year.
“That’s why I’m not too disappointed,” Federer said. “I feel like he had to come up with the goods, and it did feel like to some extent it was in my racket. I just came up against somebody who was, on the day, a bit better when it really mattered.”
The turning point on Sunday arrived when they were at 5-5 in the third set, after Thiem had hit a backhand into the net to give Federer a 30-15 lead. During the next rally Federer went for a drop shot. Thiem sprinted in, caught up to it, and sent it back and past Federer for 30-30. Federer tried another drop shot. The result was the same: Thiem dashed in and returned it for a winner. He went on to break Federer’s serve with a forehand winner.
“I’m lucky because I’m pretty fast. That’s a present from my parents, I guess. You cannot really practice that,” Thiem said, smiling. “He covers the net well, so it was good for myself that I could pass him twice.”
Federer gave credit where it was due. “I thought that the first one, I hit very well. The second one, if he doesn’t pick it up quick, he’s not going to be there, but he did,” Federer said. “So the second one I should have hit it, but I didn’t. So just these little things, you know, that matter today. He did very well when he got up to the ball, stayed calm, made the shot.
“And I maybe should have covered the first one, I feel like, but again, you know, he looks good when he gets there, and that’s what clay-courters can really do. He stayed cool under pressure there.”
By that stage, it wasn’t a surprise because Thiem had shown poise in the second set by fending off two break points and holding serve for a 2-1 lead. Thiem gained a break in the next game and clinched the set on his second chance.
“After that, I could hold my serve. Roger was not able to break me. I think he was maybe a little bit down,” Thiem said. “I was on the upper side, and I used that momentum well to break him to 3-1. And of course, it’s such a different story when the score is 4-1 in the second than if it would be 2-3 with a break.”
Thiem arrived with a 3-4 match record and uncertain prospects after battling an illness this year. Besides, he prefers clay to hard courts. But he grew to like the slow courts here and his three-set semifinal victory over Milos Raonic — in which he won a set from the Canadian for the first time in three matchups and didn’t lose serve — prepared him well to take on Federer. “Mentally, it was a really good week because I stayed focused in on all the matches. I was not crying around,” he said.
Thiem’s surprise win wrapped a tournament that lost Nadal to injury and lost No. 1 Novak Djokovic and No. 3 Sascha Zverev to third-round upsets. Fans who came to see Federer win another title on Sunday were disappointed, but few could begrudge Thiem his feel-good story.
As for that 88-title lead Federer holds over him, Thiem laughed at the notion he’d ever catch up to the man he considers a legend. “For all of us younger players, it’s really a privilege to still be able to compete with him and to play against him in the finals of big tournaments like this one,” Thiem said. “I hope, and we all hope, that he continues for quite a while still.”
For one day, at least, Thiem was the better player even if he couldn’t quite believe it.
“It would be nice,” Thiem said, “if I could hold this shape, all these positive emotions, also in the next tournament and then in every tournament I play.”