With Points To Defend, Dominic Thiem Digging Deep and Battling In Antwerp

Dominic Thiem (photo: Tennium/Belga)

ANTWERP/WASHINGTON, October 18, 2023 (by Michael Dickens)

Dominic Thiem achieved a career-high ranking of World No. 3 in March 2020 and won the US Open for his first major title later that year. The Austrian remained in the Top 5 until suffering a right wrist tear in June 2021. Since then, the 30-year-old Thiem has struggled at times to regain his championship-level form. However, his gutsy performance at the ATP 250 European Open inside Antwerp’s Lotto Arena Tuesday evening might be a positive sign that better days are ahead.

Some weeks, like two weeks ago when Thiem was a quarterfinalist at the Astana Open in Kazakhstan, have gone better than others. However, there have been plenty of disappointments, too. This season, he has padded his schedule by dropping down to play Challengers, like last week in Bratislava, Slovakia, with mixed results.

In an intriguing opening-round match on Center Court that stretched past 11 p.m. and lasted two hours and 27 minutes, the 86th-ranked Thiem took on 20-year-old Italian Luca Nardi, who is bidding to qualify for the Next Gen ATP Finals and is currently in 12th place in the Pepperstone ATP Live Race To Jeddah.

With 90 points to defend from his semifinal run in Antwerp last year, Thiem rallied from a set and a break down to beat Nardi, 3-6, 7-6 (7), 6-2. Twice, during the second set tie-break, he was two points from defeat. Instead, the win snapped an eight-match losing streak to Italian opponents in tour-level play.

In his on-court interview afterward, Thiem was asked how he was able to turn what looked like a sure loss into a positive victory. “It was a very tough match and it’s always interesting to play against a great player for the first time,” he said.

“The conditions were fast. We both really served well. I needed [a whole set] to adjust to the surface. I was a set and a break down, but I was able to turn it around. I played a great tie-break, which got close at the end. The third set was really good. I’m very happy.”

Against the 133rd-ranked wild card Nardi, Thiem’s level improved as the match wore on. Last year in the European Open, he survived some tough matches early — beating a pair of Top-20 foes, Francisco Cerundolo and Hubert Hurkacz, back-back — and made it to the last four before losing to eventual-finalist Sebastian Korda in a decisive third-set tie-break. Asked if his attitude improves by winning, he smiled and said: “Yes, definitely.

“Last week’s matches [in Bratislava] were not so easy — I did not have a great result [losing in the second round to No. 130 Gabriel Diallo of Canada] — and my self-confidence is not that high. It’s even more difficult against great players in those events.”

Now, Thiem has survived his first-round challenge in Antwerp with a confidence-building comeback win over Nardi, which advanced him to play No. 5 seed Yannick Hanfmann of Germany on Thursday.

“It was not an easy first round but I was fighting through, also playing much better in the third set,” said Thiem, who improved to 17-20 at Tour-level this season (4-7 on hard courts). “I’m trying to build on that for the second round.”

Fils wins Antwerp debut over juniors friend Lajal

No. 4 seed Arthur Fils made his Antwerp debut a successful one Wednesday afternoon. He won a tight second-round battle over 20-year-old Estonian wild card Mark Lajal, who was just two days removed from winning his ATP Tour main draw debut. After 24 service holds combined by both competitors, the French 19-year-old prevailed 7-6 (4), 7-6 (2) in just under two hours on Center Court to advance to his fifth tour-level quarterfinal of the season.

The 38th-ranked Fils, who won his first ATP Tour title earlier this season in Lyon, saved all eight break points he faced from No. 229 Lajal. He served six aces, hit 22 winners and outpointed Lajal, a friend from their junior days together, 86-83.

“We know each other very well. I knew it was going to be a battle, a tough match,” Fils said in his on-court interview. “I’m very happy with the win.”

Fils, who is fifth in the Pepperstone Live Race To Jeddah, will face No. 8 seed Juan Pablo Varillas of Peru in Friday’s quarterfinal round. The 69th-ranked Varillas came from a set down to beat No. 84 Alexander Shevchenko of Russia, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, on Court 1. He hit 17 winners, made just seven unforced errors and attacked Shevchenko’s second serve, winning 67 percent of those points.

Mpetshi Perricard upsets Goffin, advances to first ATP Tour quarterfinal

A day after 20-year-old Frenchman Giovanni Mpetshi Perricard saved a match point to earn his first ATP Tour win of his career — and following two qualifying wins to make the main draw — he backed it up with an upset of Belgian legend David Goffin on Wednesday evening. Before an enthusiastic Center Court audience, the 226th-ranked Mpetshi Perricard, a native of Lyon beat the 105th-ranked Goffin, 7-5, 6-3, in 70 minutes to advance to his first tour-level quarterfinal. He immediately celebrated by signing autographs for plenty of young fans lining the front row of the Lotto Arena with their oversized fuzzy tennis balls.

“Saturday, I wasn’t in the draw, so to be in the quarters is amazing for me,” Mpetshi Perricard said in his on-court interview. Before qualifying began, he replaced Belgium’s Kimmer Coppejans, who withdrew due to a back injury. “The match today was real difficult. … I did well. I look forward to playing the quarterfinal.”

Mpetshi Perricard hit 11 aces with his big serve, recorded 27 winners overall and won 85 percent of his first-serve points. He converted two of five break points against Goffin, did not face any break points on his serve and outpointed his opponent 63-47.

With his second-round victory, Mpetshi Perricard will reach a new career-high and earn a Top 200 debut on Monday. In Friday’s quarterfinal round, he will play No. 3 seed Alexander Bublik of Kazakhstan, who dropped just four points on his first serve and defeated France’s Gregoire Barrere, 6-4, 6-2, in 65 minutes on Center Court. The No. 36 Bublik hit 11 aces and struck 23 winners in outpointing the 72nd-ranked Barrere 59-43. It was Bublik’s third career win over Barrere in five meetings and the second in three tries this season.

Tsitsipas shining in doubles play with his brother

While Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas, top-seeded in the singles draw, awaits his opening match on Thursday evening against Botic van de Zandschulp of the Netherlands, he and his younger brother Petros have been starring in and dominating the doubles draw. The Tsitsibros have won consecutive matinee matches on Center Court to advance to the semifinal round.

First, the Tsitsipas brothers defeated Mexican-Spanish duo Miguel Reyes-Varela and David Vega, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (2). Then, on Wednesday afternoon, they upset No. 4 seeds Matwe Middelkoop of the Netherlands and Andreas Mies of Germany, 7-5, 6-3. The Tsitsipas brothers combined to hit five aces, win 88 percent of their first-serve points and saved the only break point they faced against Middelkoop and Mies.

Around the European Open

No. 67 Botic van de Zandschulp of the Netherlands won for the sixth time this year after losing the first set. This time, his 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-3 win over No. 90 Dominic Stricker of Switzerland was sweet revenge. A year ago, Stricker beat van de Zandschulp 6-2, 6-4. This time, the Dutchman struck 39 winners, including 10 aces, during their two-hour, 15-minute Center Court match. The win advanced van de Zandschulp to face No. 1 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas on Thursday.

No. 74 Nuno Borges of Portugal advanced to the second round with a 7-6 (4), 6-4 win over No. 78 Dominik Koepfer of Germany on Court 1. It was his seventh win in his last 10 against lefties. Borges hit 25 winners and won 90 percent of his service points to advance to Thursday’s second round against 127th-ranked German qualifier Maximilian Marterer.

Wednesday’s European Open results

Thursday’s European Open order of play

By the numbers

With his first-round loss to Botic van de Zandschulp, Dominic Stricker has lost six consecutive matches (including Challengers) since becoming the first Swiss man in more than two years to reach a Grand Slam fourth round at the 2023 US Open.

“Quotable …”

“The crowd propelled me forward. I can leave the European Open with my head held high after three days of good tennis.”

Alexander Blockx, 18, of Belgium, who earned a wild card into qualifying and won two matches, then lost in his ATP Tour debut to Yannick Hanfmann of Germany Tuesday evening.