Australian Open 2020: Thiem earns first Major victory over Nadal to set Zverev semi-final
Nadal had to reach SF to guarantee No1; Now Djokovic can return to top with title
Of the four quarter-finals to emerge from this year’s men’s draw, perhaps the most eagerly-anticipated was that between the top-ranked men at the top of the draw.
Rafael Nadal, world No1, had two big targets in Australia this year. By reaching the semi-finals, he would guarantee holding on to that top ranking. And if he should go on to win just his second title in Melbourne, he would at last equal the tally of his oldest rival, Roger Federer: 20 Major titles.
In his way was one of few players aged under 30 who had made inroads at the Major level. No5 Dominic Thiem has reached back-to-back finals at the French Open, where he lost out to Nadal on both occasions, as he had in all four meetings there. Even so, there were a couple of significant elements in their timeline.
Thiem had beaten Nadal four times, all on the Spaniard’s favourite clay, and most recently at Nadal’s second home, Barcelona, last year. The 26-year-old Austrian had also evolved his hard-court game to such a degree that he took Nadal to a fifth-set tie-break at the US Open in 2018 before the Spaniard survived an epic 4hrs49mins battle. And Thiem’s hard-court credentials were confirmed last year at the tour’s biggest Masters, Indian Wells, where he beat defending champion Federer to the title.
How much, then, would be added to the Thiem challenge in this 14th meeting?
In a contest that lived up to all expectations, there was much to admire in both players—on the Nadal side the familiar and unparalleled competitive intensity, and on Thiem’s, some breath-taking speed, powerful shot-making, and masterful tactics, such as more slice on serve, and great efficiency both overhead and at the net.
There was, then, nothing between them until the eighth game, when Nadal suddenly earned himself three break points, and a great lob winner did the deed, 5-3.
Thiem continued to toil hard in the next game, taking Nadal to deuce, and a cracking backhand winner earned break point. The Austrian pulled off a backhand smash to earn a second, and this time converted: It was all square, 5-5, and they headed to a tie-break, 35 points apiece.
Nadal upped the stakes with an opening drop-shot winner, then rushed the net for a touch volley winner: He had the first advantage. However, Thiem’s speed and quick thinking got him back with a deft pick-up and pass, and it was Nadal whose arm tightened, two straight errors, 4-2 to the Austrian. A return-of-serve winner, and Thiem served for the set, 6-3. He needed just one, a forehand winner, 7-6(3).
Thiem was playing aggressive tennis, while Nadal was mixing things up to try and defuse the Austrian’s energy. But it was the Spaniard’s serve that steadied the ship in the second set as he opened with two love holds. Meanwhile, Thiem went 0-30 down in successive service games, and a poor drop volley brought up three break points to Nadal. The Austrian could not find a first serve and double faulted for the break, 2-3.
Nadal consolidated, despite being called for a time violation, but Thiem stayed in touch, and Nadal caught the net with a routine forehand to bring up three break-back points. A nervy double fault handed the break to Thiem, who held to love, 5-4.
There were some gripping rallies along the way, but Thiem’s serve was performing just a little better, and an edgy Nadal was hitting a few more errors. Serving to save the set, Nadal fended off break point, and it would be another tie-break.
Again, Thiem stole a march with a couple of great forehands, 4-0, only for Nadal to level. But a poor drop volley from the Spaniard gave the racing Thiem another lead, and he took it, with the set, 7-6(4).
Come the third set, Nadal gritted his teeth, got more leverage on his serve, and held to love for 3-2, but there was precious little between them, until Thiem served to stay in the set at 4-5. Nadal saw his chance, worked two set points, and with Thiem’s first serve slipping to just 50 percent, Nadal went for the kill, 6-4. The Rod Laver arena rose as one to applaud: They wanted more of this.
And a pumped Nadal now had a spring in his step, a dangerous sign for Thiem, and after a swift hold, he worked three break chances in the second game of the fourth set. Yet he could not take them, and instead, Thiem hit fast, wide and with extraordinary power to draw errors on the Nadal serve and he broke, holding for 3-1.
Nadal battled on, holding for 3-4 from 0-30 down—Thiem would have to serve it out. And at last, the scale of occasion got the better of him. Three Austrian errors, and Nadal had the break back: it would take another tie-break.
The five opening points went against serve as the clock ticked past four hours, and it was Thiem who held first for 4-2. Even slipping over, the Austrian won the next gut-busting rally, and suddenly Thiem had two match points. But again, he made two errors, 6-6, however this time, he made up for it with a stunning backhand pass to earn another match point, Nadal netted a return, and Thiem took a notable victory, 7-6(6), and the remaining semi-final place.
Thiem will now face No7 seed, Alexander Zverev, for a place in the final, and leads the German 6-2, including their only meeting last year in the ATP Finals.
This was certainly a notable win for Thiem, but Zverev’s victory was also significant. One of the earliest contenders from the new generation to break the stranglehold of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer in Majors was Zverev.
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 all three of those tennis giants. But he seemed to have one mental block, or perhaps a physical block for such a young, slender figure: He could not go deep in the best-of-five set format of the Majors. Before Melbourne this year, had made the quarters only at the French Open, twice.
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 relatively trouble-free progress to the quarters without dropping a set.
There, he would meet one of a rare breed in this era, a three-time Major champion, the former world No3, Stan Wawrinka. The 34-year-old Swiss began last year to show all that quality after time away for double knee surgery, and reached the quarters at both the French and US Opens.
The 2014 champion in Australia, currently ranked 15, had here put out another of the big contenders for Major success, No4 seed Daniil Medvedev, in a fine five-set battle. He started strongly against Zverev, too, winning 16 out of 19 points on his serve against a lack-lustre opponent, 6-1.
But that momentum shifted quickly in the second set, as the German began to find his range, and serve a storm: 20/20. One break in the eighth game, and he served out the set, 6-3.
After an exchange of breaks to start the third set, Zverev broke again for 3-2, and served out the set, 6-4. He continued to dominate with fine serving and some decent net plays in the fourth, breaking twice for 4-0, and served it out, 6-2, after 2hrs20mins.
This, then, took the German to his first Major semi-final, and he was delighted:
“I don’t know what to say. I’ve done well in other tournaments, I’ve won Masters, I’ve won the ATP Finals, but I never could break that barrier in a Grand Slam. I’m happy to be in the semi-finals… You guys cannot imagine what this means to me, and I hope it will be the first of many.”
Before the tournament, Zverev said that, if he won, he would donate his entire prize money to the Australian bushfire appeal. It remains a task of the highest order to do so—the fellow semi-finalists are first Thiem, then Djokovic or Federer. But it is probably safe to say that lifting the trophy come Sunday would mean more than all the tea in China to the youngest of the four, Zverev.