MADRID: Dominic Thiem saved two match points and ended the first chapter of Roger Federer’s return to clay court tennis with a come-from-behind 3-6, 7-6 (13/11), 6-4 win and reach the Madrid Open semi-finals last night.
The 37-year-old Swiss had returned this week to the surface for the first time in three years - his last clay court match was a loss to Thiem in Rome in 2016.
Thiem, the 2018 Roland Garros runner-up and winner of the Barcelona title last month, prevailed in two hours 10 minutes having saved two match points in a 15-minute second set tie-break.
He will today face world number one and top seed Novak Djokovic, who advanced on a walkover when opponent Marin Cilic withdrew with a stomach virus.
Federer said he was happy to have made his clay court comeback.
“I feel very good about my game. I thought I had some good matches here,” the 20-time Grand Slam champion said. “I feel good on the clay right now.”
Federer now has the option to take up a wild card being held for him next week in Rome. Otherwise, his next clay event will be the French Open where he last played in 2015.
“The match was so close,” said Austrian fifth seed Thiem who had also defeated Federer in the Indian Wells final in March.
“I was really lucky to save the match points.
“Roger was playing unbelievable on the clay. I’m very, very happy to win. He is so special, maybe the best ever in tennis, he has something different.
“Every time you play him, every point is a big challenge. I tried to play the tiebreaker point by point.
“I had served well in the second set, I just wanted to keep that up.”
In the final set, Thiem earned a break for 2-1 as Federer netted a backhand but the Swiss rallied to break back, 4-4
The momentum fizzled though and a game later Thiem broke again for 5-4 with a lob winner.
The Austrian served out his fourth victory in six matches against Federer a game later.
Meanwhile, Simona Halep closed in on a return to the top of the world rankings after beating Belinda Bencic 6-2, 6-7 (2/7), 6-0 to advance to the women’s final.
Halep, currently number three in the world, will reclaim the number one ranking should she win her third title at the Caja Magica.
Bencic had defeated Halep in their last two matches, but the reigning French Open champion, who lifted the trophy in Madrid in 2016 and 2017, came through in just under two hours.
Halep awaits either Dutch seventh seed Kiki Bertens, a finalist in Madrid last year, or 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens.
“It’s such a nice feeling to be back in the final here. I really enjoy playing in Madrid, it motivates me,” Halep said.
The third seed comfortably claimed the opening set but let her game lapse slightly in the second.
Bencic, who opened the door for Halep to possibly return to the top of the world rankings with her quarter-final defeat of current number one Naomi Osaka, took a tight second set in a tiebreaker.
But Halep pulled herself together to blitz Bencic in the third as she raced to a victory that increases her chances of returning to the top of the pile.