© Peter Staples / ATP World Tour

Grigor Dimitrov stepped up often to take time away from Dominic Thiem on Monday at the Nitto ATP Finals.

Court Positioning, More Than Power, Aids Dimitrov's Winning Debut

Bulgarian took time away from Thiem during their Group Pete Sampras match

What you want to do is quite often in direct conflict with what you need to do.

Dominic Thiem wanted to step back as far as possible returning second serves against Grigor Dimitrov to buy time to take big cuts at the ball. After all, it’s what helped get him to London in the first place. But there was only one problem: It didn’t work nearly as well on the quicker, lower-bouncing indoor conditions of The O2.

Dimitrov defeated Thiem 6-3, 5-7, 7-5 in their Group Pete Sampras match at the Nitto ATP Finals on Monday, with the battleground of second serves as important as anything that transpired in the match.

Overall, Thiem won 23 per cent (12/52) of points against Dimitrov’s first serve, and 44 per cent (20/45) against the Bulgarian’s second serve. On the several occasions Thiem stepped inside the baseline to return serve, his win percentage skyrocketed to 63 per cent. When he moved back behind the baseline, his win percentage dropped to 40 per cent.

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In the opening set, Thiem put back into play only 57 per cent of second-serve returns, primarily because there was no set play he was sticking to.

His focus was time. Thiem wanted to move back to acquire more time to complete his big, aggressive backswings on his returns. But what worked better on this occasion was focusing on giving Dimitrov less time by stepping in and rebounding the ball quicker right back at him.

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When returning second serves, Thiem could quite often be found around six metres behind the baseline. But every now and then he would sneak in to around three metres inside it. Moving back was what made him feel more comfortable, but moving forward was where victory was more attainable.

The same return concept of time and space stood true for Dimitrov as well. When he made contact with his return of serve inside the baseline, he won an impressive 61 per cent of his return points. Rushing Thiem’s aggressive backswings was a key strategy that Dimitrov never wavered from.

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When Dimitrov returned serve from behind the baseline, primarily against Thiem’s powerful first serve, Dimitrov won only 26 per cent of his return points. Importantly for the Bulgarian, his average return hit point on second serves was farther up the court than when he returned first serves, while Thiem’s court position was the opposite.

The further back Thiem moved to return, the tougher it was for the Austrian to get the ball deep, which is really what mattered at the end of the day. When Thiem’s return landed in the service boxes, he won 35 per cent of the points. If it landed past the service line, he won 45 per cent of his return points. The depth of the return was more important for Thiem than how hard he struck the ball.

Similarly, Dimitrov won only 32 per cent of his return points that landed inside the service line, but that jumped to 69 per cent for points starting with a return that landed in the back part of the court, closer to the baseline than the service line. It often looks like we play a sport dominated by power and spin, but court position and depth of shot (where you stand to hit it, and where it lands) typically matter more to the win/loss column.

Overall Thiem hit 75 per cent of his baseline shots as a forehand, while Dimitrov was not far away at 70 per cent. Thiem averaged 73 mph with his groundstroke speed, which again was a little more dominant than Dimitrov’s 70 mph.

Thiem won a lot of the small battles over the court, but Dimitrov ultimately played the court and the opponent in a smarter fashion.

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