Thiem overcomes ‘demons in the head’ to beat Nadal and reach Australian Open semifinals

Hannah Wilks /

Despite faltering on his first few chances to close out the match, Dominic Thiem overcame world no. 1 Rafael Nadal in four sets to reach the semifinals of the Australian Open for the first time.

Australian Open tennis is live from Melbourne from 20 January until 2 February 2020.

Thiem will face Alexander Zverev in the semifinals on Friday after recording a 7-6(3), 7-6(4), 4-6, 7-6(6) victory over Nadal in just over four hours.

The Austrian came back from breaks down in the first and second sets before to take both in tie-breaks and served for the match at 5-4 in the fourth set, but produced a horrible service game, double-faulting and making three forehand unforced errors to give away his advantage.

In the fourth-set tie-break, Thiem hit a very makeable forehand square into the net on his first match point and failed to convert the second before finally inching over the line when Nadal’s forehand sailed long.

Thiem reflected on the dramatic end of the match afterwards, telling Jim Courier in the post-match interview:

‘[It] was a special situation for me, serving for the match against Rafa, for my first semifinal at the Australian Open. It was such a mentally tough situation, I couldn’t handle it!

‘It was a little “demons in the head” like Roger said.’

Thiem hit 65 winners in the four-set match (Credit Image: © Jason Heidrich/Icon SMI via ZUMA Press)

Thiem was referencing Roger Federer’s comments after narrowly escaping defeat at the hands of John Millman in the third round.

‘I was getting ready to explain myself in the press conference. The demons are always there, they’re lurking,’ Federer said after winning the last six points of the match to come back from 4-8 down in the fifth-set tie-breaker.

Thiem and Nadal had played 12 times on clay, including in the final of the French Open in 2018 and 2019, and Thiem had won four of those matches. But coming into Wednesday’s quarterfinal, their only previous match on hard courts had been an epic US Open quarterfinal battle which Nadal won in five sets – but only after it had lasted almost five hours.

Since that clash in September 2018, Thiem has only become more of a force on hard courts, winning his maiden Masters 1000 Series title at Indian Wells last March when he beat Federer in the final and going on to claim 500 titles in Beijing and Vienna.

Thiem fell more than once mid-point but went on to win the rally (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

The Austrian showcased all the improvements he has made as a hard-court player as he took the match right to Nadal on Rod Laver Arena, firing 65 winners – many of them on the forehand and up the line – and putting Nadal under more or less constant pressure. Thiem’s ability to hit offensive shots from defensive positions was reminiscent of Nadal himself, and the Spaniard missed some forehands off the back foot at key moments out of respect for Thiem’s lightning-fast court coverage.

Nadal broke in the eighth game of the first set to give himself the chance to serve for it, but Thiem broke back with a clean return winner. In the ensuing tie-break, Nadal retrieved a mini-break with a murderous cross-court forehand, but missed the same shot on the next point and Thiem set up set points with another return winner, taking the first set 7-6(4) as he ran around his backhand to fire a searing forehand winner up the line.

Nadal broke to lead 4-2 in the second set, despite being infuriated by a time violation warning from umpire Aurelie Torte, telling her: ‘You don’t like the good tennis.’ Clearly irked, he served a double fault on break point to be broken back, but came back from 0-30 down at 5-6 to take the second set to a tie-break. The world no. 1 levelled from 0-4 to 4-4, but hit a poor drop shot which Thiem chased down easily and whipped away for a winner to set up set point, which the Austrian converted after a lucky bounce off the net cord.

Facing the prospect of having to try to come back from two sets to love down for the first time since Wimbledon 2007, Nadal found some of his best serving rhythm midway through the third set and pounced as Thiem was serving to stay in the set at 4-5, breaking to take the set as Thiem snatched at a backhand.

Rafael Nadal congratulates Dominic Thiem at the net (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

Nadal’s celebration was intense and it seemed as if all the momentum was with him as he created three break points on Thiem’s serve at 0-1, but the Austrian saved them all and went on to hold before breaking serve when an exceptional backhand slice knifed over the net to draw the error from Nadal.

All Nadal could do was keep the deficit to one break and hope that Thiem faltered – and the Austrian did in spectacular style, throwing in a terrible service game when attempting to close out the match.

Kept alive, Nadal took the fourth set to a tie-break which began with a flurry of mini-breaks before Thiem took a 4-2 lead with a pair of exceptional backhand volleys, even leading 5-3 after falling on his backside mid-point and bouncing back up to win the rally. Working his way to a pair of match points, Thiem missed the makeable forehand on the first, then lost the second when Nadal stopped the rally to challenge a defensive lob from Thiem which was incorrectly ruled in.

But once more, Thiem bounced back from adversity as surely as he had when landing on his backside four points earlier, producing a sensational backhand pass that just clipped the tape and soared past Nadal for a third match point. This time, it was Nadal who made the mistake, sending Thiem into his first Grand Slam semifinal outside the French Open.

The 26-year-old Austrian said:

‘I felt I was lucky in the right situations. It’s necessary as he’s one of the greatest of all times, one of the biggest legends in this sport, so you need a little luck to beat him.’

Nadal did not seem too devastated by the loss, telling the media:

‘I think he’s playing great. He’s playing with a lot of energy, aggressive, determination. Even from difficult positions, he was able to produce amazing shots

‘I honestly didn’t play a bad match. My attitude was great, I think, during the whole match. Good, positive, fighting spirit all the time, giving me more chances.

‘Of course, I am sad. I lost an opportunity to be in the semifinals of another Grand Slam. But I lost against a great opponent. And he deserve it, too. Well done for him.’

Thiem is the second Austrian player to make an Australian Open semifinal, following in the footsteps of Thomas Muster, his country’s greatest player – who in fact started the tournament as a member of Thiem’s coaching team, but no longer serves in that capacity.

Although Federer and Novak Djokovic, who face off in the second semifinal, have 13 Australian Open titles between them, the ‘Happy Slam’ is guaranteed a first-time finalist with Thiem facing Alexander Zverev, who dropped his first set of the tournament against Stan Wawrinka in the quarterfinals but came through in four to reach his first Grand Slam semifinal.

Thiem leads the head-to-head with Zverev 6-2, but only 2-1 on hard courts.