January 31, 2020
Dominic Thiem dug deep to defeat Alexander Zverev and advance to face Novak Djokovic on Sunday.
Victory didn’t come naturally to the popular Austrian. There were times when his touch deserted him and even his breathing seemed laboured.
But Thiem summoned enough willpower and winning strokeplay to deserve his place in the Australian Open final.
He won three tie-breaks against Rafael Nadal and two more against Zverev.
Of the latest brace, Dominic observed: ‘Two tie-breaks. So tough. So close. But the Australian Open final. What a start to the season!
‘I was playing for four hours against Rafa, so it wasn’t easy to recover. I had some troubles in the first set. It was a tough start for me.’
Zverev led by that set and should have led 2-1. Somehow Thiem found his best for the most important points.
That proved enough to turn the tide and clinch the tie-breaks.
But Djokovic won’t be unduly worried by what he saw. He may even take further encouragement from the draining nature of Thiem’s achievement.
The Serb will be fresher and already starts the strong favourite to lift his eighth Grand Slam down under.
Even Thiem acknowledged as much. ‘He is still king of Australia. He has won seven times here.
‘I will try my best and try everything to win. I will give everything I have.’
His recovery rate will be crucial to an entertaining showpiece in two days’ time.
In his semi-final, Thiem prevailed 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (7-4). He did it the hard way after a troubled start.
Zverev’s self-assurance as the first set developed was extraordinary to behold. It was as surprising as Thiem’s early self-doubt.
At last, this was Sascha showing the mental strength to compliment his massive talent.
He looked as though he had been playing Grand Slam semi-finals all his life.
Thiem looked hungover from his epic battle against Nadal. He breathed heavily as if suffering from a cold.
Zverev was so superior as he took that first set that you wondered why he hadn’t won a Slam already.
Thiem was visibly searching deep within himself to find his best game.
Even in the second set, as he slowly raised his level, there were moments of despair and others when Thiem rebuked himself at length.
But the Austrian has more experience at these heady heights and started to find a way.
He was helped by one lamentable service game from the younger man. The gift of a precious break was accepted gratefully.
Perhaps the best game of the entire match came when Thiem served for the second set at 5-4.
Time and again he should have put winners away but only opened the door to high drama instead.
A smash from Thiem was only smashed right back past him by a buoyant Zverev.
‘The shot of the match,’ admitted Thiem.
Sascha milked the applause and urged louder support from the Australian crowd in the Rod Laver Arena.
Twice more Thiem should have put rallies to bed early, only to give Zverev the chance to take the upper hand temporarily.
It all made for some marvellous thrills and spills, ended only when Dominic’s ace levelled the match.
‘It was a big game for me,’ said Thiem.
Rafa’s conqueror fizzed a winning backhand past Sascha to break first in the third.
At last, the match seemed to be going the way most experts had predicted.
But after more electrifying rallies, with Thiem diving full length to keep one point alive, Sascha broke back.
Then the tension started to get the better of him. Zverev argued bitterly with the umpire when an ace was called out and he had run out of challenges.
He duly came up with another ace and said something that earned him a warning. But at least he was fired up by now and looking favourite to take the third set.
Thiem had to save a set point with a searing backhand down the line. He saved another with an unplayable forehand.
‘This was a second key moment,’ pointed out the winner.
A similar one-two sealed the first tie-break for the Austrian.
This time the forehand came first and he secured the set with a stinging cross-court backhand.
Zverev had suddenly gone missing when it really mattered. What did he have left in the locker to turn this around?
Not enough, as it turned out. A double fault and a wild smash in the second breaker compounded his problems.
Just when he needed to, Thiem turned on the power to earn the right to test himself against Djokovic in his third Grand Slam final on Sunday.
‘Tie-breaks are always 50-50,’ said Thiem. Try telling that to Nadal and Zverev.