After both battled to five-set victories in the second round, fifth seed Dominic Thiem and American Taylor Fritz face off for a place in the last 16 at the Australian Open.
Thiem vs Fritz is live from Melbourne on Saturday 25 January at 3pm local/4am GMT
Thiem has made the semifinals or better at the French Open for the past four years, finishing runner-up in 2018 and 2019, but has never enjoyed the same success at majors on other surfaces, although he did make the quarterfinals of the US Open in 2018.
In Melbourne, Thiem first made the third round in 2016 and went on to make the fourth round in 2017 and 2018, losing to David Goffin and Tennys Sandgren respectively, but was forced to retire in the third set of his second-round match against Alexei Popyrin in 2019.
Seeded to meet top seed Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals, Thiem made great strides on hard courts in 2019 as he won his maiden Masters 1000 Series title at Indian Wells as well as 500s in Beijing and Vienna, and has certainly spared no artillery in his assault on the Australian Open, adding Austria’s greatest player Thomas Muster to his coaching team alongside Nicolas Massu for 2020. Nevertheless, hopes were not particularly high for the 26-year-old when he went 1-2 at the ATP Cup, with defeats to Hubert Hurkacz and Borna Coric.
Runner-up to Stefanos Tsitsipas at the Nitto ATP Finals in November, Thiem opened his Australian Open campaign with a 6-3, 7-5, 6-2 victory over French veteran Adrian Mannarino – a match I thougth might be tricky for him – but had a much harder time against Australian wildcard Alex Bolt in the second round. Thiem won the first set 6-4 and served for the second at 5-4, only to lose it 5-7 and trail by two sets to one when Bolt edged the third set tie-break. In the end, it was Thiem determinedly cleaning up his game and reducing unforced errors on the one hand and Bolt physically fading which saw the fifth seed dominate the last two sets 6-1, 6-2 and come through in three hours and 22 minutes.
‘That’s exactly what the off-season is for, to get in great physical shape so it’s easier mentally to maintain the level over five sets. Australia is coming so early in the season, so it’s really necessary to have a great off-season and put your body in the best shape possible. It’s even nicer when it pays off in the early rounds.’
Thiem may be feeling pleased about having stood up well physically to the challenge of a lengthy, five-set clash so early in the season, but he may want to reconsider his positivity about having to do so in the second round against an opponent ranked world no. 140.
Taylor Fritz also played a lengthy five-set match in the second round, although in his case it involved coming back from two sets down.
The American has never been past the third round of a major and indeed has only got that far in 14 previous main-draw appearances; he also had only won one match that went to five sets, and that was against Mischa Zverev at the US Open in 2018.
Although Fritz, now 22, won the maiden ATP Tour title of his career in Eastbourne last year and reached the finals of Los Cabos and Atlanta to boot, he is still looking for a breakthrough Grand Slam moment to make a major impact on the sport, and did not impress at the ATP Cup, where he went 1-2 with his only victory coming over a Norwegian player ranked outside the top 300. But after a routine win over qualifier Tallon Griekspoor in the first round, Fritz’s comeback victory over two-time Grand Slam finalist Kevin Anderson was an impressive one. Anderson is currently outside the top 100 after his 2019 season was decimated by a knee injury, and he had also played for over three and a half hours in his last match, a very late finish against Ilya Ivashka, so the big South African was not exactly at his best. Nevertheless, it was a big moment for Fritz to come back from two sets down and win 4-6, 6-7(5), 7-6(4), 6-2, 6-2 as Anderson faded physically, much as Bolt had done.
‘That was huge for me. He played a really tough five setter just the other day and then obviously coming back… going back-to-back five setters is going to be tougher for him than usual. I felt fresh, so I just told myself, “I have to keep running.”’
This will be the third meeting between Thiem and Fritz. Thiem has won both, which took place at the US Open in 2017 and 2018, but on both occasions, Fritz managed to take a set. The American doesn’t really have the outright explosiveness of Thiem, but he’s a great defender and very athletic, capable of making life extremely frustrating for Thiem with his adeptness at absorbing and redirecting pace. Thiem should still win, but perhaps will not confine his tendency to drop sets to Fritz to the US Open.