AVICHAL GUPTA | 3rd February 2020

The Build-Up

“Iam always facing the kings of these Grand Slams in the final.” Dominic Thiem quipped after recording an impressive victory over a spirited Alexander Zverev in the second semi-final at the Rod Laver Arena. The challenge that awaited the Austrian in his first Australian Open final was going to be as formidable as it had been in the two Roland Garros finals he had contested in before this. In those two games, he had been overawed by the mindboggling brilliance of the King of Clay who inevitably achieved his 11th and 12th Roland Garros crowns in typically imperious fashion. Now he was up against the King of Australia – record 7-time Australian Open champion, Novak Djokovic.

Long deemed a clay-court specialist, there were doubts over Thiem’s ability to adapt to faster surfaces. However, he harnessed his ability to play a more aggressive brand of tennis on hard courts under new coach Nicolás Massú to great success over the past year or so. The change in style brought immediate success with Thiem being crowned the Indian Wells champion after defeating none other than Roger Federer in the final; a testament to how well he could play on the surface with a more well-rounded game.

Reaching the final of the ATP World Tour Finals on the much faster indoor hard court of the O2 arena in London reinforced his newfound mastery of quicker surfaces. Thiem overcame a shaky start to the new season, losing two out of his three games in the ATP Cup by wrestling his way through an extremely challenging draw in the run up to the final. A hard-fought 5-set win over local Alex Bolt in the 2nd round and grueling back-to-back 4-set wins over Nadal and Zverev in the quarte-final and semi-final respectively saw Thiem spend a mammoth 18 hours and 24 minutes through the tournament before his third Grand Slam final.

Djokovic, on the other hand, was preparing for his 26th Grand Slam final, in his favorite tournament, on his favorite surface, after enjoying an undefeated start to 2020 that had already seen him lead Serbia to the inaugural ATP Cup crown. The Serb was at his unstoppable best in the earlier rounds, dropping just one set in the run up to the final. His success had been aided by his more relaxed service rhythm which had seen 37% of his first serves go unreturned and him broken only 3 times since the opening round. Moreover, his second serve speed had seen a dramatic rise through the tournament. This had seen him spend nearly 6 hours lesser time on the court than his opponent. To add to this, Nole also had the advantage of an extra rest day that the imperfect scheduling by the Australian Open affords one of its finalists every year.

Djokovic and Thiem have enjoyed a competitive rivalry with the Serb edging the head-to-head battles with 6 wins over the Austrian’s 4. Remarkably, Thiem had won 4 of their last 5 meetings with the World No. 5 winning the pair’s last encounter in a fiercely-contested affair at the 2019 ATP World Tour Finals – his first victory over the Serb on a hard court.Every Grand Slam since Stan Wawrinka’s US Open victory in 2016 has been won by the inimitable big 3 of men’s tennis. Could Thiem overcome insurmountable odds to be the first of the NextGen to break through the dominance of the big 3 and finally set in motion the long-delayed change in guard at the helm of men’s tennis?

The will to make new history proved to be the equalizer in a battle fitting of the occasion

The defending champion made a flying start to proceedings, racing to a 4-1 lead with the help of an early break. Thiem seemed out of his depth in the early exchanges as he struggled to come to terms with the occasion. Djokovic showed little signs of nerves and took advantage of his opponent’s jittery start, winning 13 points in his first three return games compared to Thiem’s 3. However, the Austrian managed to crawl his way back into the set through a combination of a rise in his level and a dip in Djokovic’s.

Some uncharacteristic unforced errors from Djokovic on top of a good return game from Thiem gifted the latter a break back and he saved break points with some brave tennis in the following game to tie the set at 4-4. While Thiem’s forehand was causing Djokovic all kinds of trouble, his backhand down the line and second serve continued to let him down through the course of the set as he made a few poor errors when serving to stay in the set at 5-4, culminating in a double fault to gift Novak the first set at the second time of asking.

Despite losing the first set in disappointing fashion, Thiem continued to grow into the game and take charge of the baseline rallies between the two. After serving so well throughout set 1, Djokovic’s serve started to falter as he made two double faults at 1-1 to hand a break to Thiem. The second of which was caused by a wayward 194 km/h second serve on the Austrian’s second break point opportunity. Djokovic responded like a true champion, putting immense pressure on the Thiem serve. His persistence paid off as Thiem’s faltering backhand gifted back the Serb a break, with two careless errors on that side levelling the set a 4-4. However, Thiem broke back immediately after another bizarre serving game from Djokovic. A double fault and two-time violations derailed Djokovic’s momentum completely as he surrendered the game with a whimper. Thiem managed to capitalize this time, leveling the match at one-set-all after a comfortable service hold.

Thiem was right in the driving seat at this point

Djokovic’s game suffered a considerable drop-off as he struggled to cope with Thiem’s intensity at the start of the third set. The Austrian cashed in on Djokovic’s misery by breaking the Serb twice and racing to a 4-0 lead. Djoker struggled to cope physically after a stunning dip in energy levels that saw him take a medical time-out at 4-1 down. Thiem roared on and clinched the set 6-2 in emphatic fashion to establish a 2 sets to 1 lead over the Serb. This was the first time that Djokovic had been 2 sets to 1 down in an Australian Open final. He would require to dig deep and rediscover his energy levels to mount a comeback against the determined Austrian. With the crowd playing their part in making Djokovic the pantomime villain, which has become standard at this point, it seemed as if today just wasn’t one of tennis’ biggest titans’ day.

Djokovic bites back and the tide turns

Thiem started the fourth set in the same vein he had finished the third while Djokovic looked to reset to recover his rhythm. After two routine holds by the pair to kick off the set, Thiem piled pressure on the Djokovic serve in the third game. However, Djokovic showed signs of recovery by warding off a break point to close out the game after some incisive net play. The Serb began to regain his energy levels as the set progressed, piling pressure on Thiem’s serve while holding his own with ease. Thiem, however, kept fighting relentlessly until a careless missed volley at 4-3* 15-0 unraveled his momentum, leading to a double fault and a forehand unforced error to hand Djokovic a crucial break who held the subsequent game with aplomb to level the final at 2 sets each.

Djokovic was well and truly on top and continued to harry the Thiem serve at the start of the fifth set. Djokovic, now hardly making any errors, drew mistakes from the Thiem forehand to break his serve in the third game of the decider. The Austrian stalwart struggled to maintain the aggression that had helped him in sets two, three and the start of the fourth as he struggled to break through Djokovic’s impenetrable defense. He mounted a courageous fight back in the following game, however, conjuring two break points with some impressive play. But another missed aggressive forehand and Djokovic’s indomitable mental spirit led the Serb to secure a massive hold to consolidate his break in the fifth.

Djokovic, searching for the second break to all but put the match beyond Thiem’s reach, trying to wear down the Austrian with some impressive return games. However, Thiem showed incredible character to dig deep and keep the Serb at arm’s length by producing some brilliant tennis at 3-1* and 4-2* down. The underdog continued to challenge the Serb till the end with some sublime rallies keeping him hopeful of the most incredible recovery.

However, Djokovic held strong and sealed his record 8th Australian Open triumph and 17th Grand Slam triumph at the Rod Laver Arena.

The man of the moment

With an emphatic service game to defeat an incredible Dominic Thiem 6-4 4-6 2-6 6-3 6-4 in one of the most fiercely contested finals of the Serb’s career, this was a contest well worth writing home about. Novak overtook Nadal tobecome World No.1 as the NextGen’s painful wait continued.