As Dominic Thiem attempts to recover from the physical and emotional effort he has put into his last two matches and faces up to the task of taking on Novak Djokovic in the final of the Australian Open, he has found an encouraging ally in Alexander Zverev. Moments after Thiem put paid to Zverev's hopes of making his first-ever major final, the young German backed him to go all the way.
"I think he has a chance," said Zverev of Thiem's impending clash against seven-time Australian Open champion Djokovic. "He's playing the best tennis of his life. I do believe he's playing good enough."
One of the heaviest hitters on the men's tour, Thiem has played some remarkably intense tennis to reach his first non-clay Grand Slam final. The Austrian won a slugfest against Rafael Nadal; outplaying and out-defending the world No 1 to script a 7-6 (3), 7-6 (4), 4-6, 7-6 (6) victory in Wednesday's quarterfinals. Though he was sluggish to start with in the semi-final against Zverev on Friday, the 26-year-old weaved his way back for a 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (3), 7-4 (4) win.
"I played four hours and 10 minutes against Rafa, who is the most intense guy on Tour," said Thiem. "Almost every rally was so intense and long. I was in bed around 5 a.m. two days ago, so it was not easy to recover, then once the adrenaline came today, and by the time I walked into the full stadium I was fine. I had some trouble in the first set, we were both nervous I think and there were two breaks each. It was a tough start for me. I felt nerves, having put in so much energy. My stomach was rebelling a bit. It's not nice to play return games, when he's hitting so many first serves. I didn't have a look, really, in the fourth set…Thank goodness there is a tie-break in tennis, otherwise we'd still be playing."
Having spent close to eight hours on the court in his last two matches, the big question is whether Thiem will have enough left in the tank for Sunday's final. It is not ideal preparation against Djokovic, who not only is the most successful male player at the Slam, having won seven titles already, but will physically make it as tough as possible for Thiem to win his first. The Serb, seeded second, has dropped only one set enroute the title clash, has an extra day to recover and is almost impossible to break. In a final. In Australia.
Thiem, meanwhile, had never gone past the fourth round in Melbourne before this year. The odds against him are almost as high as those he faced in the last two major finals: when he took on Nadal at his beloved French Open in the final in 2018 and 2019.
"I have been twice in the Roland Garros final, twice facing Rafa, and now I am facing Djokovic, he is the 'King of Australia'," said the Austrian. "I will try my best and do everything I can to win. But if I walk off the court in two days' time a loser, I will be patient and trust the process and continue to work hard."
Like the rest of the tennis world, Thiem too understand that the gulf in experience may be too much to bridge on Sunday. Djokovic, who could very well end up being the most successful men's player in Grand Slam history, has already contested 25 finals and won 16 of them. He has a winning record over two of his biggest rivals: 29-26 over Nadal, and 27-23 over Roger Federer. Even though both Federer and Nadal are ahead of his in the Slam count, they have had little success over the Serb in majors. Nadal last beat him in the 2014 French Open final, while Federer last defeated Djokovic in 2012 Wimbledon semi-finals. At the 2019 Australian Open final, Nadal could win only six games against the Serb.
"I think there is more advantage to have the experience than disadvantage," said Djokovic, 32, after his semi-final win over Federer on Thursday.
"I think it's better obviously coming into the Grand Slam final to have some experience behind you. At the same time if you don't have that experience maybe then you don't have the expectations or you don't have the pressure of being in the finals that you need to win. The younger players (are) now coming up and challenging us oldies to get to the Grand Slam finals. It's happening already. It's inevitable it's going to happen more frequently in the future."
But Thiem vs Djokovic promises to be more than a battle of generations. The Austrian has become increasingly difficult for Djokovic to shake off in recent times. Though the defending champion leads their head-to-head series 6-4, he has lost the last two matches that turned out to be absolute epics.
At last year's French Open semi-finals, Thiem battled Djokovic, and the elements, over two rain-interrupted days to score a dramatic 6-2, 3-6, 7-5, 5-7, 7-5 win. A few months later, at London's O2 Dome, he defeated Djokovic 6-7(5), 6-3, 7-6 (5) at the ATP World Tour Finals. He had rallied from 1-4 down in the third set tie-break to beat the Serb on hard courts for the very first time. Even though one of the best defensive players, Djokovic has, like Nadal did a few days before, found Thiem's relentless aggression too much to handle.
On Friday, Zverev explained what's been working so well for the Austrian this tournament: "He flattens his shot out much more. Before he was a complete clay court player. A lot of movement, a lot of running around, stuff like that. Now he has a complete hard court game, he's a much different and much better player.'
Add to that, Thiem has an incredible work ethic and went through some, well-documented, 'gladiator training' in the pre-season. "It's amazing how he practices," former player Nicolas Massu, who joined Thiem's coaching staff in 2019, told the ATP website. "All the time, 100 per cent, he's very focussed all the time. He tries to improve every day, so for me as a coach it's amazing because he's a guy who wants to win all the time."
The Austrian has drawn from all that training to earn his place in Sunday's title clash. But with little time to recover, the final step is bound to be the hardest.
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Updated Date: Feb 02, 2020 11:32:31 IST