Australian Open 2020

Australian Open 2020: Thiem beats Zverev to set title bout against ‘king of Australia’, Djokovic

Thiem will rise to No3 with Melbourne victory, Djokovic would reclaim No1

Dominic Thiem
Dominic Thiem (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

Tennis fans and pundits have been calling on the next wave of players to step up to the plate on the biggest stages, to try and break the stranglehold of the ‘big three’, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, on Major titles.

In the last decade, only Juan Martin del Potro in 2009, Andy Murray in 2012, and Marin Cilic in 2014 managed to win a Major title while still under 26. And precious few even made a Major final by that age: Milos Raonic in 2016, and Kei Nishikori in 2014 were both just short of 26 when they reached their only finals. So who would be the next to reach that milestone?

The first of the so-called #NextGen, Daniil Medvedev, came in a surge last year. He reached the final of Washington and Montreal back to back, won the Cincinnati Masters, and then gave Nadal the fight of his life in a five-set final at the US Open. The 23-year-old went on to win St Petersburg and the Shanghai Masters, and make himself one of the favourites at the Australian Open. He lost to No15 seed Stan Wawrinka in the quarters.

Another Masters champion, the 23-year-old Karen Khachanov, lost a thrilling third-round five-setter to Nick Kyrgios—himself still only 24 and two-time Major quarter-finals: Kyrgios lost to Nadal in the quarters. Recent Major semi-finalists, 23-year-old Matteo Berrettini and 21-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, both lost early.

Then there was No7 seed Alexander Zverev, of whom few had great expectations this fortnight in Melbourne after he lost all three matches at the ATP Cup.

However, even as a teenager, Zverev was touted as a future Major champion. The tall German had won three Masters titles and the World Tour Finals at just turned 21, reaching No4 in the ranks with 60 match-wins in 2018. Still only 22, Zverev also notched up wins over the ‘big three’. But he had struggled to go deep in the best-of-five format of the Majors. Before Melbourne this year, had made the quarters only at the French Open.

His solution, after a dip in confidence both on and off court in 2019, was to work harder and play more. He spent the off season playing an exhibition tour in South America with Federer, and after a disappointing ATP Cup, opted to practise up to three times a day in Melbourne’s punishing conditions.

The reward was progress to the quarters without dropping a set, and then the most significant step, a victory over former champion Wawrinka to make his first semi-final. Could he overcome those previous demons and reach the final?

To do so, he would have to beat friend and No5 seed Dominic Thiem, who was perhaps the top tip to join the list of 149 other men who own a Major title. He made his first final at 24, at Roland Garros, and repeated the feat last year—a significant achievement in itself, given that he then lost to the all-time clay champion Nadal in both finals.

Now he was attempting to do the same on a hard court, having made his fifth semi in really impressive style, beating No29 seed Taylor Fritz, No10 seed Gael Monfils, and then No1 Nadal in a superb four-setter.

Should he or Zverev go on to win the title, they would become the first player born in the 1990s to claim a Major men’s singles title—and the 150th man ever to win a Major singles title.

With so much on the line, their ninth meeting promised much, and was sure to jangle the nerves. Zverev trailed the Austrian 2-6, though three of those matches had seen the winner come back from a set down. And Thiem would find himself in the same position on Thursday night.

Zverev stole a march by winning the toss, and opting to receive: He earned 0-40 in the first game against a slow-out-of-the-blocks Thiem, and broke. The Austrian broke straight back but seemed to be a half-pace slower than his taller opponent.

After a brief delay to close the roof against some rain on a desperately warm evening, Zverev continued to press hard with some on-point serving—he would go 90 percent on first deliveries for the set—while Thiem continued to look more laboured than he had against Nadal two days before. The German got his reward, a break in the seventh game, and then a love hold for 5-3.

And it did not stop there: Thiem sprayed his 11th and 12th errors to offer another break chance, and put a tired backhand into the net. Zverev was off to the perfect start, 6-3, after just 40 minutes.

Zverev opened the second set with a love hold, notching up his 12th service point in a row. Thiem needed to regroup, and he did so with his first ace of the match and a hold. He was then handed a helping hand in the shape of a Zverev blow-out in the next game, two double faults and errors off the baseline handing over the break.

Another ace, and the Austrian held for 3-1, but it would not last: Zverev found his serve again, and closed out a hold with a net finish, before going on to break courtesy of a smash winner, 3-3. Those overheads were proving to be a valuable addition to the Zverev package, and he pulled off another as he faced more break points. But now it was Thiem who closed out the break with a net finish, 4-3.

That certainly put a spring in the step of Thiem, and he held to love, but serving for the set, he netted a Zverev lob to bring up break-back point. It would take him almost seven minutes and another break point to hold, but a timely ace did the trick: 6-4.

Things were warming up nicely, with both men now moving well, going for winners, serving at speed, and proving adept at the net. Zverev opened the third with a hold, but there was then another delay as a small section of lights failed. Fortunately, it did not seem to disrupt the Austrian, and instead Zverev faced three break points, losing the third, and Thiem fended off deuce on serve for 3-1.

The Austrian almost broke again, but instead it was the German who took advantage of a poor game from Thiem to level, 3-3.

Zverev almost blew out again in the ninth game, out of challenges and an ace called out. With admirable focus, he put down a second-serve ace, then aced again, roaring at the hold, 5-4, though he picked up a warning for his language in the process.

Thiem needed to up the attack to break down the ‘safer’ play of the German, and he did so to save two set points and hold after seven minutes, 5-5: They would have to go to a tie-break.

Now the more aggressive, attacking tennis of Thiem paid dividends. He began with a superb touch volley winner, then two holds for 3-0. A forehand winner took him to set points and he sealed it with his 20th winner of the set, 7-6(3).

They were 99 points apiece as Thiem opened the fourth set with a hold, and it was beginning to look as though they would wear one another down—to the advantage of Djokovic in the final come Sunday. After all, the seven-time champion had dropped only one set in the tournament, and was enjoying an extra day’s rest.

Neither of these young players was entirely convincing as they headed to a tie-break with not a break point in sight. But Thiem again played the aggressor, took the initiative, and was rewarded. With a fine net finish, his 23rd of the match, he became the first Austrian to reach the Australian final, 7-6(4).

The two men embraced warmly at the net, and the fight and quality of the Zverev challenge will surely give him the confidence to take another stride in Majors this year. Thiem summed it up:

“He had a horrible ATP Cup and I know he worked so hard and practised so much, what a great player he is. This tournament is a big breakthrough for him, the first semi-finals. Both of us could’ve won this today, maybe [the difference] was experience. He is still only 22, so we won’t wait long until he’s in his first Grand Slam final.”

Thiem, though, now faces the biggest challenge in tennis, equal to that of facing Nadal’s 93-2 record and 12 titles at Roland Garros. It will be Djokovic’s 68-8 record and seven titles on the Serb’s favourite court. Thiem smiled:

“It’s unbelievable I’ve twice played Rafa Nadal in Roland Garros finals. I’m now facing Novak here—he’s the king of Australia. I’m always facing the kings of these Grand Slams. I’ll try everything to win.”

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