Novak Djokovic has never lost in an Australian Open final. Can Dominic Thiem change that?
Nadal vs Thiem is live from Melbourne on Sunday 2 February at 7.30pm local/8.30am GMT
In his post-match interview after setting up the final, Thiem referred to Djokovic as the ‘king of Australia’, and it’s an apt title. Holder of a record seven Australian Open titles, Djokovic will be playing in a record eighth final on Sunday – as well as for a 17th overall Grand Slam, the chance to join Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal as the only men to win eight or more titles at the same major and the opportunity to retake the world no. 1 ranking.
It seems almost longer than two weeks ago that Djokovic dropped a set in his first match of the tournament against Jan-Lennard Struff. The Serb comes into the final on a 16-set winning streak, and has won his last eight sets in Australian Open finals. In fact, in seven Australian Open finals, Djokovic has only lost five of 26 sets and the only player to stretch him to five was Nadal in 2012.
Djokovic is also on a 15-match winning streak stretching back to the Nitto ATP Finals, where he lost to Federer in straight sets and Thiem in three, the latter result one of the few rays of hope for the Austrian coming into this final.
That’s not to say that Djokovic has been exemplary during this Australian Open. He seems to be suffering from a stomach issue, although with two days off between the semifinal and final, that may have cleared up. Against Milos Raonic, he had a contact lens issue at the end of the match (although still came through in three sets). And he was definitely rattled at the beginning of the semifinal against Federer, narrowly escaping from going a double break down.
Federer certainly came out firing in a way that we didn’t expect from reports that his participation in the semifinal was doubtful, although it quickly became clear that he was playing the match the only way he could to give himself a chance. Ultimately, the key takeaway from the match was not Djokovic’s slow start, but the way that he elevated his game in the first-set tie-break – in which he was flawless, winning seven of eight points and not making a single mistake – and at the end of the second set, playing a tremendous returning game to break Federer.
That ability to elevate his game seemingly at will has also been a characteristic of Djokovic’s last two Australian Open finals – remember last year, when Nadal breezed through the field without dropping a set, only to be utterly dismantled by Djokovic in the final? Is the same treatment in store for Dominic Thiem?
The fifth seed played his finest match of the tournament against Nadal in the fourth round, a scintillating showcase for Thiem’s improvement as a hard-court and indeed all-court player: Scrambling defense and the ability to chase down balls with lightning footspeed, as well as hit offensive shots from defensive positions; blistering groundstroke power off both wings; and being able to finish off points with finesse at net. Those same qualities were apparent in the semifinals against Alexander Zverev, but only intermittently; Thiem rather waxed and waned erratically as the match went on, often going off the boil just when it seemed that he had found his groove. Admittedly various interruptions in the match didn’t help, and Zverev was serving at a very high level for most of the match, but Thiem also admitted to nausea brought on by nerves, and it also seemed as if there was a bit of a reaction from his big win over Nadal, which doesn’t bode especially well for the final.
Against Djokovic, Thiem will be the underdog again as he has been in the two previous Grand Slam finals he’s contested against Nadal at the French Open: Utterly outplayed in the first, he did manage to level the second 6-3, 5-7, but then got only two games in the third and fourth sets. Admittedly playing Nadal at the French Open is probably the toughest draw in sport – but then playing Djokovic at the Australian Open is only very slightly less tough.
Djokovic lost just one set in the first five matches these two played against each other, but Thiem has largely taken charge of the head-to-head in recent seasons, beating Djokovic in straight sets in the quarterfinals of the French Open in 2017. Thiem has now won four of the last five against Djokovic to narrow the gap to 4-6, but the majority of those matches have come on clay. Thiem did beat Djokovic on indoor hard courts at the ATP Finals in November, 6-7(5), 6-3, 7-6(5), but they have only played once on outdoor hard courts, and that was all the way back at the Miami Masters in 2016.
Thiem has shown how much better he has become at playing on hard courts, flattening out his shots and playing more proactively. This will be key against Djokovic, because the only answer to the Serb’s supreme defense on hard courts is to find a way to hit through him – something almost nobody can do. It’s been an incredible tournament for Thiem, and he should take a set, but I simply can’t see the Austrian sustaining the unbelievable physical and mental intensity it would take to live with Djokovic over five sets. Djokovic should lose his first set in an Australian Open final for a while, but will preserve his unbeaten record – and retain the title.