Thiem beats Zverev to set up Australian Open final against ‘king of Australia’ Djokovic

Hannah Wilks:

Dominic Thiem backed up his victory over Rafael Nadal by defeating Alexander Zverev in four sets to reach the final of the Australian Open for the first time.

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Despite numerous swings in momentum and nausea brought on by nerves, Thiem defeated Zverev 3-6, 6-4, 7-6(3), 7-6(4) in Friday’s second men’s semifinal.

Thiem will face seven-time champion Novak Djokovic, who the Austrian called the ‘king of Australia’, in the final on Sunday.

Runner-up to Rafael Nadal at the French Open in 2018 and 2019, Thiem said after the match:

‘Twice in the Roland Garros finals, twice I was facing Rafa, who won this tournament 11 times.

‘Now I’m facing Novak here, he’s the king of Australia, won 7 times here I think, most of any man.

‘I’m always facing the kings of these Grand Slams in the final.’

The 27-year-old Austrian achieved a measure of revenge for those French Open final defeats at Nadal’s hand when he defeated the world no. 1 in a scintillating four-set match in the quarterfinals on Wednesday, but Friday’s semifinal against Zverev was a considerably more nervous affair.

Zverev had also defeated a former Australian Open champion in the quarterfinals, in his case 2014 winner Stan Wawrinka, and had dropped just one set on his way to a first Grand Slam semifinal. Despite a 2-6 head-to-head against Thiem, the 22-year-old German made the more confident start, reaping immediate rewards from his decision to receive serve when he broke Thiem to lead 1-0. Thiem broke straight back, but the incipient momentum of the match was halted when rain started to fall and the roof on Rod Laver Arena was closed, with ballkids swarming the court to dry it off.

It was a frustrating night for Alexander Zverev (AAP Image/Scott Barbour)

Play resumed with Zverev holding for 2-2, and the German would reel off the final three games of the set to lead 6-3. The seventh seed had served 14 double faults in one match during a woeful performance at the ATP Cup, but had been serving impressively in Melbourne and started the match the same way, landing 90% of his first serves in the first set.

But when double faults did rear their ugly head for Zverev, they were costly. He served two in one messy game to be broken and trail 2-3 in the second set, and although he was able to break back immediately when Thiem played a sloppy game of his own, the double faults had clearly spooked Zverev into taking a lot of pace off his second serve. Thiem capitalized, breaking Zverev again and serving out the set to level up 3-6, 6-4.

Another interruption took place early in the third set, with play halted after a row of lights at the top of the stadium went off and lasting quite a few minutes before it was decided to continue nevertheless. Thiem, who had visibly relaxed during the delay when the DJ played ‘Sweet Caroline’ – he said after the match that it reminded him of ski holidays in Austria – delivered a brilliant return game to break on the resumption, and actually had points to take a double-break lead for 4-1, pulling out all the stops including a diving volley to try to take the lead.

Zverev fended off break points and held to stay in touch, a gallant effort which was immediately repaid when he was then able to break and level at 3-3. The German then held from 0-30 at 4-4 despite being furious at having no challenges remaining and coded for verbal abuse, and had two set points in the following game to take a two-sets lead.

Zverev congratulates Thiem after the match (AAP Image/Scott Barbour)

With his back against the wall, however, Thiem produced two bold and brilliant winners to see off the set points, and although Zverev had seemed the stronger player heading into the tie-break – especially with Thiem seemingly indicating to his team that he was feeling nauseous – it was the Austrian who lifted his level in the tie-break just as he had done in all three he had played against Nadal. Thiem took the immediate mini-break when he attacked the net and landed a delicate volley after a powerful return, and raced to a 3-0 lead he never let slip, hitting four consecutive winners to take the two-sets-to-one advantage.

As the match ticked on into its fourth hour, neither player could get an advantage in the fourth set with both men holding solidly, and the set marched on to a tie-break which once again saw Thiem take the lead after Zverev served his third double fault of the match, his second serve missing the line by meters to give Thiem a 2-0 lead.

An errant backhand from Zverev saw him fall behind 0-3, only for Thiem to make consecutive groundstroke errors and hand the advantage back. Zverev was unable to take advantage, a missed smash costing him the opportunity to level 3-3, and once more Thiem found a way to land his biggest one-two punches at the most crucial moment, earning himself three match points. Zverev staved off one, but the second was a quintessential Thiem point: Scrambling defense, transitioning into offense with the aid of brutal power off the ground, and finished with finesse at net to close out the win.

Thiem told John McEnroe in the post-match interview:

‘Two tie-breaks, so tough and so close. It was almost impossible to break him, he had such a high percentage on his first serve.

‘But the Australian Open final, it’s absolutely unreal. What a start to the season so far.’