The younger generation of men’s tennis has been under serious scrutiny and copped some undue pressure in the past few seasons. But hours after Alexander Zverev defeated 2014 Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka to make his first Grand Slam semi-finals, Dominic Thiem sent World No 1 Rafael Nadal packing in an blistering encounter at the Rod Laver Arena on Wednesday to score a rare double breakthrough for the challengers.
At the end, the pressure almost got too much for Thiem as he blew two match points. However, he earned his third with a wickedly angled backhand pass that clipped the tape and coasted away from Nadal’s reach. A forehand error from the Spaniard saw Thiem seal a 7-6 (3), 7-6 (4), 4-6, 7-6 (6) victory after four hours and 10 minutes – his first against Nadal in a Grand Slam.
“It was so mentally tough and I could not handle it, but I managed to turn it around again,” said the 26-year-old. “There were a few demons in the head. I was rushing too much and changing my tactics. I am very happy I won the tie-break. Today I had a feeling I was lucky in the right situations. The net cord was on my side. He is one of the greatest of all time, so you do sometimes need luck to beat him.”
For the past three seasons, Thiem has been the only one who has constantly challenged Nadal on the red dirt. He has beaten the ‘King of Clay’ four times on the surface but hasn’t quite been in the same league at the Majors. Nadal has beaten him in French Open finals two years running and also won their only hard-court clash, in five intense sets, in the quarter-finals of the 2018 US Open.
The Austrian, who had never gone past the fourth round at the Australian Open before this, was 0-5 against Nadal in Slams going into Wednesday’s match. He not only shrugged off that deficit, but he met the World No 1 in battle on his own terms. He hit fearlessly and ran tirelessly, matching Nadal shot for shot, defence for defence. Thiem pounded 14 aces and 65 winners to score the biggest win of his career.
Though not part of ATP’s much-publiciced Next Gen, the Austrian has been one of the young talents most likely to take over from the Big 3. With expansive shots off both wings and an admirable work ethic, Thiem can cause a lot of damage on the tour. But he hadn’t been able to piece it together at a non-clay Grand Slam.
But the World No 5, possibly at the physical peak of his career, has grinded it out in Melbourne this time. He fought back from two sets to one down against Australian Alexander Bolt in the second round, and wiggled out of a tricky third-round clash against Taylor Fritz in four sets. Against Nadal though, he knew he had to bring his best, and Thiem brought his absolute best.
Every time it looked like Nadal would pull ahead, Thiem wrested back control. He came back from a break down in each of the first two sets, playing some incredibly aggressive tennis to win the tie-breakers. Nadal usually dominates players with single-handed backhands, lacing his shots with lethal top spin that eventually leads them to concede control. But on Wednesday, Thiem was up to the task. Not only that, he attacked Nadal’s backhand constantly, making him backtrack and retreat. Usually there’s no one better than the Spaniard when cornered, but the speed and depth on Thiem’s shots just didn’t let him bust through. With Thiem matching his attack with some dynamic defence, he even won more points than Nadal in rallies that went for nine shots or more.
The emotional wobble, which has held him back from reaching his potential at the Majors, reappeared as Thiem attempted to serve for the match in the fourth set at 5-4. The Austrian was a nervous wreck, serving a double fault and three unforced errors of the forehand, which brought him 35 winners on the day. This time though, he made a quick recovery, holding serve in the next game to take the set to a tie-breaker, the third of the match.
In the breaker, where the first five points went against serve, Thiem went 4-2 ahead with a backhand pass down the line that just evaded Nadal. The Austrian had carved out a drop shot on the half-volley to draw his opponent to the net, then just took half a step and pushed the backhand straight down. Pure poise. On the next point, he slipped mid-rally, shot back up, defended, and won the nine-shot rally after Nadal overcooked a backhand. Though Thiem hammered an inside-in forehand into the net on first match-point, at 6-4, he dug in to win the tie-breaker 8-6.
While Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, with 36 Major titles between them, will meet in the semi-finals, the top half of the draw will have two first-timers. This will be Thiem’s maiden semi-final at the Australian Open, Zverev broke new ground by making the final four of a Major for the very first time.
The German, who has been well below par at Grand Slams, overcame a sizzling start from Wawrinka to beat the Swiss 1-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2.
“It will be the first Grand Slam semi-final where I’m the older player,” said Thiem of his next match. “We’re great friends and I’m really happy that he’s in his first semi-final. We know how to play each other in a Grand Slam. The atmosphere will be so nice. It’s such a nice stadium and I’m looking forward to Friday.”
It has been a long time coming.
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Updated Date: Jan 29, 2020 22:35:01 IST